Creating a desk manual

This topic isn’t unique to accountants, or even non-profits, but it is an important part of a good internal control system.  If you come from public accounting, a desk manual might not be something you think about because you’re used to having access to prior year client files.  However, when you enter private accounting, prior year records or even prior month records may be difficult to access or understand.  Below I’ve listed what I think are some of the top reasons why you should prepare and maintain desk manuals along with a few lessons I’ve learned along the way about what to include this manual.

What are the benefits to having a current desk manual

  • It ensures continuity while staff are out on leave
  • It provides the manager visibility into a staff’s process and allows for feedback and input to support the staff with effective, efficient processes
  • While writing the manual, it provides the staff an opportunity to think critically about their own activities and consider what could be improved
  • It is a quick resource for ad-hoc training or cross-training needs
  • When done well, it provides management with more agile resourcing.  If a desk manual documents unique responsibilities or functions separately, it allows agile resourcing because a portion of a job may be more easily transferred to another accountant to help balance out peaks and valleys among the staff.

What should be included in a desk manual?

The What – A basic desk manual should document what needs to be done.  It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and that is certainly true in this context.  Screen shots of systems, reports, processes or activities provide for a user-friendly visual desk manual.  If you want to
take a manual to the next level for a reasonable cost, Snagit is an example of a great program for ad-hoc screen shot editing.

The When – Make sure the desk manual documents how frequently processes or activities should occur.  Don’t forget to capture those activities that occur only at the quarter or year-end.  The less frequent they occur, the more likely they will be overlooked during training.

The Why – In public accounting you likely have documentation around not only what procedures were performed, but also why you completed a certain audit step, why you determined outliers were immaterial or not representative of the population, or why you arrived at the conclusions you reached from the test work.  In private accounting this type of “why” documentation may be minimal or absent altogether.  A desk manual provides more then just a record of what to do, it is a great place to document why and alternatively help answer the question why not?  It’s as important to know when to do something as it is to be able to distinguish when not to do something.  The firm I worked at used the term “SALY” to describe doing something just the Same As Last Year.  SALY is often a great place to start.  However, business processes change, exceptions occur, and accounts are the first line of defense for identifying and asking about transactions that might need to be modified because the activity or accounting standard is no longer the same as last year. 

The How – Don’t forget to include documentation about where files are saved, what programs are needed to accomplish the tasks, and who provide the various sources of information.  Documentation about how to get the job done will make the process go smoother when staff is unexpectedly out.

Contacts – What better place to store details about sources and users of information then a desk manual? 

Applicable standards or reference guides – Recognizing that accounting is often grey, include in the desk manual any applicable accounting standards or internal reference guides that apply to the activities as well as any interpretations of the standards which are specific to the business.  (If accounting policies are maintained separately, include in the desk manual a reference to the applicable accounting policies which capture this information.)

Key red flags – I’ve heard it said that “we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us.”  By documenting red flags in the manual, you allow those who follow next in a staff’s footsteps to learn from the issues that have come up before. 

Finally, don’t forget the maintenance.  Its easy to let desk manuals go stale, but a manual is only as good as the information it contains.  Make maintenance an important priority.  Have someone other then the staff who prepared the manual review it at a minimum every 24 months or when a new staff begins working in the job.

I’ve included a sample segment from a fixed asset desk manual as an example.  I hope you find this useful as you consider how to use desk manuals to benefit your organization.


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