In auditing, the concept of professional skepticism is ubiquitous. Just as a Jedi in Star Wars is constantly trying to hone his understanding of the “force”, an auditor is constantly crafting his or her ability to apply professional skepticism. It is professional skepticism that provides the foundation for decision-making when conducting an attestation engagement.
A brief definition
The professional standards define professional skepticism as “an attitude that includes a questioning mind, being alert to conditions that may indicate possible misstatement due to fraud or error, and a critical assessment of audit evidence.” Given this definition, one quickly realizes that professional skepticism can’t be easily measured. Nor is it something that is cultivated overnight. It is a skill developed over time and a skill that auditors should constantly build and refine.
Recently, the extent to which professional skepticism is being employed has gained a lot of criticism. Specifically, regulatory bodies argue that auditors are not skeptical enough in carrying out their duties. However, as noted in the white paper titled Scepticism: The Practitioners’ Take, published by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, simply asking for more skepticism is not a practical solution to this issue, nor is it necessarily always desirable. There is an inevitable tug of war between professional skepticism and audit efficiency. The more skeptical the auditor, typically, the more time it takes to complete the audit.
Why does it matter? Audit quality.
First and foremost, how your auditor applies professional skepticism to your audit directly impacts the quality of their service. Applying an appropriate level of professional skepticism enhances the likelihood the auditor will understand your industry, lines of business, business processes, and any nuances that make your company different from others, as it naturally causes the auditor to ask questions that may otherwise go unasked.
These questions not only help the auditor appropriately apply professional standards, but also help the auditor gain a deeper understanding of your business. This will enable the auditor to provide insights and value-added services an auditor who doesn’t apply the right degree of skepticism may never identify.
Therefore, as the white paper notes, audit committees, management, and investors should be asking “How hard do our auditors get pushed on fees, and what effect does that have on the quality of the audit?” If your auditor is overly concerned with completing the audit within a fixed time budget, professional skepticism and, ultimately, the quality of the audit, may suffer.
Applying skepticism internally
By its definition, professional skepticism is a concept that specifically applies to auditors, and is not on point when it comes to other audit stakeholders. This is because the definition implies that the individual applying professional skepticism is independent from the information he or she is analyzing. Other audit stakeholders, such as members of management or the board of directors, are naturally advocates for the organizations they manage and direct and therefore can’t be considered independent, whereas an auditor is required to remain independent.
However, rather than audit stakeholders applying professional skepticism as such, these other stakeholders should apply an impartial and diligent mindset to their work and the information they review. This allows the audit stakeholder to remain an advocate for his or her organization, while applying critical skills similar to those applied in the exercise of professional skepticism. This nuanced distinction is necessary to maintain the limited scope to which the definition of professional skepticism applies: the auditor.
Specific to the financial statement reporting function, these stakeholders should be assessing the financial statements and ask questions that can help prevent or detect flaws in the financial reporting process. For example, when considering significant estimates, management should ask: are we considering all relevant information? Are our estimates unbiased? Are there alternative accounting treatments we haven’t considered? Can we justify our selected accounting treatment? Essentially, management should start by asking itself: what questions would we expect our auditor to ask us?
It is also important to be critical of your own work, and never become complacent. This may be the most difficult type of skepticism to apply, as most of us do not like to have our work criticized. However, critically reviewing one’s own work, essentially as an informal first level of review, will allow you to take a step back and consider it from a different vantage point, which may in turn help detect errors otherwise left unnoticed. Essentially, you should both consider evidence that supports the initial conclusion and evidence that may be contradictory to that conclusion.
The discussion in auditing circles about professional skepticism and how to appropriately apply it continues. It is a challenging notion that’s difficult to adequately articulate. Although it receives a lot of attention in the audit profession, it is a concept that, slightly altered, can be of value to other audit stakeholders. Doing so will help you create a stronger relationship with your auditor and, ultimately, improve the quality of the financial reporting process―and resulting outcome.