A Guide to Professional Skepticism for Auditors

Professional skepticism is crucial to your duty of care as an auditor. This concept includes skepticism in the usual sense, an inquiring mind, and a critical eye towards audit evidence. Acting with proper skepticism allows you to diligently audit in good faith, with integrity, based on objective facts.

The importance of proper skepticism in auditing has been an integral topic of discussion over the last two decades. Many public scandals have raised questions about whether auditors and inspectors have been sufficiently skeptical in their work. Some examples were Enron, WorldCom, many of the dealings that caused the 2008 financial collapse, Mitsubishi Materials, Wells Fargo, and Volkswagen. Regulators and the general public have become increasingly concerned about the auditing oversights that led to these kinds of financial disasters.

Professional skepticism makes a significant impact on audit quality. It has three elements:

1. Competence:

The knowledge, skill, and overall ability of the auditor. You must possess the proper knowledge and skills to perform reliable audits.

2. Approach:

The integrity and good faith of the auditor. You should not assume honesty or dishonesty, merely recognize that fraud, misstatement, and misrepresentation of essential facts can happen.

3. Action:

This element refers to the importance of performing a robust risk assessment, planning the engagement based on the risks involved, ensuring rigorous engagement supervision, and the diligent gathering and evaluation of audit evidence.

You can work with proper skepticism by using robust procedures such as careful corroboration of documents, mathematical analysis, observation, and recalculation. Apply objectivity to selecting audit procedures, choosing sampling (or 100% testing) methodology, evaluating results, formulating conclusions, and conducting audit work. Tasks that allow for heightened skepticism include:

  • Evaluating the methods and assumptions used to determine fair value estimates for assets and financial instruments.

  • Evaluating the procedures over asset impairment, work in progress, and percentage of completion calculations.

  • Examining variance and sensitivity analyses.

  • Reviewing management assumptions for calculating inventory reserves.

  • Reviewing production figures and system-generated reports.

It’s essential to be rigorous. You must choose procedures and conduct testing commensurate with the related risks and key controls instead of on evidence that is easier to obtain. Focus on the more relevant and reliable evidence, getting enough of it (i.e., sufficiency), and using corroborating information rather than overemphasizing the confirming evidence.

Fostering a positive relationship with clients, while necessary, must not affect the audit. Audits can be compromised by a fear of conflicts with management, a desire for high post-audit satisfaction ratings, or a desire to maintain long-term clients. Deadlines and the desire to keep audit costs low can also hurt the quality of the audit. A proper audit should be free to challenge management representations.

The cornerstone of professional skepticism is verifying information objectively and from multiple sources. Mistakes or mischaracterizations can be made at any number of steps in the process, so you must ascertain numbers independently.

As an internal auditor, you must remain vigilant. If you keep these ideas in mind, audits can prevent the financial and legal fallout of that unchecked errors and malfeasance cause. Do your best to ensure that neither time nor cost constraints, familiarity with the client, nor the desired outcome damage your standard of professional care.

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