Eric West wrote a great blog post on thinking before you ask your boss questions you may have or if you need help. In my experience as an accountant and auditor, knowing when, what, and who to ask are daily struggles for a staff accountant. Ideally, you will have coworkers who may have enough knowledge to help you get by. However, in smaller firms, sometimes the only people available to ask are your bosses. One extremely helpful tool I have learned, and this is especially true for tax returns is that by creating an open point list, you will use your time more efficiently.
This is the best recommendation I can give you when you first start. I use this strategy primarily for tax returns. I used to make my open point lists in excel or word, but found that I often change them or need to re-write things as I go through the return. Say you don’t get the ideal situation of your boss hands you a clean tax return with practically the same work papers as last year and explains the year summary, tells you how many budget hours to expect and says to come to him/her with any questions you may have. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen enough, and definitely not during busy season.
Step 1: Paper and Pencil
So what do I mean exactly by open point list? I mean that the very first step you should take before preparing a tax return is to get out a blank piece of paper and pencil (I erase a lot) and write on the top, “[Client Name, Client ID, Tax Year] Open Point List.” Congratulations you have taken your first step towards an efficient way of asking questions. Now, before you freak out and start asking everyone in the office what to do with this messy pile of papers, let’s move to step 2.
Step 2: What DO you know?
Instead of letting the tax return overwhelm you because you have never handled a Form 982 with cancellation of debt or seen a Form 2555 to exclude Foreign Income, why don’t you take a breath and look at the big picture. The big picture always starts with last year. Look at last year’s tax return and try to understand where all the income and deductions are coming from. If you see how it was done last year, you have a foundation to start with for this year and can gather the right information to do it. Don’t worry about the things you can’t figure out, just erase that from your memory. If you know how to finish the clients Schedule C and all their itemized deductions, well start getting to work and do it! On to Step 3…
Step 3: Boss before Client
It is much more efficient to finish everything that you know on the return first, before going back to your boss with a list of questions. Furthermore, I have always found it is much better to go to your boss first with your list of questions before discussing with the client. For example, sometimes you think you’re missing information but your boss actually had the information in their mailbox but forgot to forward it to you – save the client the headache of sending the information twice and go get it from your boss. Perhaps you don’t know how to fill out a form such as a 982, you should ask your boss first because they may be able to develop better questions or requests to the client than you.
I would never recommend “avoiding” the client, but at the same time, more time should be spent internally seeing what you and your boss/co-workers can figure out yourself before asking the client. In a perfect world, you would send one list of questions to your client which has everything you need to complete the return and then you are done. Clients don’t like to have 25 different emails with different dates for each question you come up with. They want one email (even if it’s a long one) with everything they need to get for you, and then be done with it.
At the end of the day if you, as a staff accountant, feel like you have no idea what you are doing, just remember your boss does. Ultimately, nothing will be sent out of the firm without someone who has a bit more “gray hair” reviewing it. So if you have to pretend like you are on top of it and know what you are doing, go ahead and fake it until you make it. If you follow these three steps and rely on tools such as an open point sheet your questions will be answered in a much more efficient manner than randomly piecing questions together or attempting to file a Form you have no clue how to fill out.
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