New Audit Committee Standard of Care – External Auditor Assessment Tool From NACD, NYSE Governance Services, Center for Audit Quality, and Others

Several influential organizations have issued External Auditor Assessment Tool, A Reference for Audit Committees Worldwide. Here is a link to a PDF of the Tool auditor_assessment_tool_worldwide.

The tool is presented by the NACD, NYSE Governance Services, the Center for Audit Quality, the Independent Directors Council, the Association of Audit Committee Members, and Tapestry Networks. And that is why, i.e., because of the stature of the presenting organizations, this document has or will present a standard of care, i.e., a standard in the relevant community, for audit committees on the topics that the tool covers.

Every audit committee member of a public company needs to read, digest and understand this document (it’s not very long – basically 10 pages in length and large type font). On its face the document provides sample questions and issues for audit committees to discuss and consider when assessing their organization’s external auditor. But the document provides more – as you analyze the questions and issues, they present sample questions and issues that the external auditor needs to have satisfied and that the audit committee needs to oversee.

Consider for example the following sample questions:

1. Did the lead audit partner discuss the audit plan and how it addressed company/sector-specific areas of accounting and audit risk (including fraud risk) with the audit committee?  Well . . . did this occur and in what detail?

2.  During the audit, did the auditor meet the agreed-upon performance criteria as reflected in the engagement letter and audit plan?  So . . . did the audit satisfy for example the applicable Statements on Auditing Standards?

3.  In private sessions, did the auditor discuss sensitive issues candidly and professionally?

4.  Did the auditor adequately discuss the quality of the company’s financial reporting, including the reasonableness of accounting estimates and Judgments?

5.  Were there any significant differences in views between management and the auditor?

6. Is the external auditor responsive and communicative (e.g., by soliciting input relative to business risks or issues that might impact the audit plan, identifying and resolving issues in a timely fashion, and adapting to changing risks quickly)?

7. Does the external auditor proactively identify opportunities and risks (e.g., by anticipating and providing insights and approaches for potential business issues, bringing appropriate expertise to bear, and by identifying meaningful alternatives and discussing their impacts)?

And the suggested questions and issues continue.

Although many of these suggested questions and issues already are covered in various Statements on Auditing Standards, how often do you hear Statements on Auditing Standards discussed in the context of audit committee responsibilities? They have been in my published materials for years (including for example, many audit committee guideline and evaluation discussion papers; Audit Committee Functions and Responsibilities, Chapter 5A for the California Continuing Education of the Bar publication, Advising and Defending Corporate Directors and Officers (October 2007); and Accounting and Its Legal Implications, A Guide for Managers, Business Owners, and Entrepreneurs (Irwin Professional Publishing, Business One 1994).

This audit committee assessment tool, presented by high-stature organizations, puts the spotlight on the topics that the document discusses.  Some people will think this is good, and some will think it is bad. Some people will believe that the document goes too far, and other people will identify the many questions and issues that it does not cover. Nevertheless, most of these questions and issues have already existed for years.

Dave Tate, Esq. (San Francisco/California),