What are the duties and responsibilities of an accountant?

What are the duties and responsibilities of an accountant?

What are the attributes, skills and qualifications needed to be an accountant?

What are the duties and responsibilities of an accountant?

Accountancy incorporates a wide variety of duties and responsibilities. While accountants may share key attributes such as robust financial skills, attention to detail and a clear understanding of business ethics, the profession includes several different specialisms. These range from preparing tax returns and carrying out independent audits to investigating fraud and guiding companies through periods of difficulty.

Whatever an accountant’s area of expertise, robust knowledge and respected qualifications are a must. Achieving a respected qualification such as ACA, ACCA or CIMA takes time and dedication, but this is just the beginning: throughout an accountant’s career, there is a strong emphasis on the enrichment of skills and knowledge through annual continuing professional development (CPD).

This article explores the qualifications needed to pursue a career in accountancy, the areas of specialism open to accountants and the importance of ethics and CPD within the profession.

Becoming a qualified accountant

What does it take to become an accountant? Attention to detail and an aptitude for maths are obviously key attributes – but professional qualifications are also essential. While a degree isn’t essential, an AAT (Association of Accounting Technicians) qualification is regarded as the minimum level of qualification needed for an accountancy career. AAT includes three levels, from Level 2, which provides a grounding in basic accounting topics, to Level 4, which covers higher accounting tasks such as drafting financial statements and managing budgets.

Beyond this, there are three core accountancy qualifications, each of which can lead to different career paths:

  • Highly sought-after, the ACA qualification is the route to becoming an ICAEW Chartered Accountant. The qualification, which typically takes between three and five years to complete, includes four key elements: work experience, examinations, professional development, and ethics and professional scepticism. Candidates are required to have an ACA training agreement with an organisation authorised by ICAEW. ACA qualifications are suited to people wishing to pursue a career in audit or work for one of the big four accountancy firms.
  • ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) qualification. The ACCA qualification includes a foundation level, so can be taken both by university graduates and for people who do not have a degree. Depending on the route taken, the qualification requires at least 36 months of professional experience, and 14 examinations. An ACCA qualification is a broader option which can lead to a career in a range of different sectors.
  • CIMA (Certified Institute of Management Accountants) Professional Qualification. A specialist qualification for those wishing to pursue a career in management accounting, the CIMA qualification leads to the Chartered Global Management Accountant (CGMA) designation. Students are required to complete 12 exams across three pillars and three levels. CIMA also offers a Certificate in Business Accounting (Cert BA) which forms an entry route to the CIMA Professional Qualification.

In addition to these well-respected qualifications, accountants can also obtain more specialist qualifications such as the ATT (Association of Taxation Technicians) and CTA (Chartered Tax Adviser) qualifications.

Services provided by accountants

While preparing and scrutinising financial documents is a crucial part of the accountant’s remit, accounting incorporates a wide range of specialist services, such as:

  • Tax accountants advise businesses and individuals on their tax requirements, as well as completing and submitting tax returns and navigating regulatory change.
  • Audit and assurance. Auditors assess clients’ operations and review their records to assess whether financial activity is being represented accurately. They also play an important role in identifying and analysing risks and advising companies on how best to manage those risks.
  • Insolvency experts support companies through financial difficulties. This involves helping companies recover from challenges, as well as guiding businesses through the insolvency process.
  • Forensic accounting. Forensic accountants investigate activities such as fraud, money laundering and terrorist financing. They also support legal proceedings.
  • Corporate finance. With a focus on helping companies achieve their optimum funding structure, corporate finance specialists play an important role in raising finance, supporting businesses through mergers and acquisitions and advising on business improvements.

Ethics and accountancy

In the accountancy world, maintaining high ethical standards is of the utmost importance. As the AAT Code of Professional Ethics explains, “Being a member of AAT is more than a qualification. AAT is well recognised and respected throughout a wide range of businesses and […] we require our members to have a professional and ethical approach throughout their lives.”

While AAT, ICAEW, ACCA and CIMA each have their own codes of ethics, these all draw upon on the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC) Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants, approved by the International Ethics Standards Board for Accountants (IESBA). As such, they all emphasise the need for acting with integrity, observing high conduct standards and avoiding bringing the profession into disrepute, and highlight the fundamental principles of integrity, objectivity, professional competence and due care, confidentiality and professional behaviour.

They also identify different types of threats which can arise, such as conflicts of interest, the threat of intimidation and the possibility that objectivity could be compromised through advocacy.

Breaches of the relevant Code can result in investigation and disciplinary action.

Continuing Professional Development (CPD)

Any accountancy career is a work in progress, and it is important to understand the need for continuing professional development (CPD). As well as providing numerous benefits, such as boosting skills and improving employability, CPD is a requirement for members of accounting bodies, although waivers may be given in certain circumstances.

The exact requirements vary. ACCA, for example, requires that members complete 40 units of CPD each year, with each unit representing one hour of learning. CIMA and ICAEW, in contrast, do not prescribe a set number of hours or units, but require members to undertake the level of CPD needed to remain professionally competent and meet career goals.

What counts as CPD?

CPD can take many different forms, including podcasts, webinars, e-learning, studying for professional exams, on the job training, networking and writing articles. Accounting bodies may provide CPD resources and events, as well as tool for members to record their learning and progress.

ACCA differentiates between verifiable and non-verifiable CPD, noting that learning activities count as verifiable CPD if the member can answer ‘yes’ to the following three questions: “Was the learning activity relevant to your career? Can you explain how you applied the learning in the workplace? Can you provide evidence that you undertook the learning activity?”

Non-verifiable CPD, meanwhile, can be difficult to provide evidence for and includes activities such as reading technical journal articles.

Record keeping

Keeping accurate records of professional development activities is a key facet of CPD. While members of accounting bodies may not need to provide evidence of their CPD routinely, members tend to be selected randomly for evaluation on a regular basis. Accounting bodies tend to provide tools that members can use for record keeping so that requests for evidence can be met when needed. Records may need to be kept for some time: the Institute of Financial Accountants (IFA), for example, stipulates that members must keep records of their CPD activities and maintain them for a minimum of six years, in either electronic or hard copy form.

Accountancy regulators and standard setters

Understanding current laws and regulations is an essential part of the accountant’s skill set. It is therefore important to keep up to date with regulatory changes and compliance requirements.

Several different bodies are involved in the regulation of accountancy in the UK and overseas. The UK accountancy profession is regulated by the Financial Reporting Council (FRC), which was given new powers in 2012. Responsible for regulating accountants, auditors and actuaries, the FRC promotes transparency and integrity in business and sets the UK’s Corporate Governance Code and Stewardship Code. Activities include developing and maintaining UK and Irish accounting standards.

The FRC Board is supported by a number of committees, including the Codes and Standards Committee and Conduct Committee, and advisory councils, including Corporate Reporting, Audit & Assurance and Actuarial.

Other relevant bodies include:

  • Financial Conduct Authority (FCA). Created in 2013, the FCA is the conduct regulator for financial services firms and financial markets in the UK. Activities include promoting effective competition and implementing and enforcing EU and international standards and regulations.
  • Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS). In 2015, the BIS published an update on the implementation of the EU Audit Directive and Regulation.
  • International Accounting Standards Board (IASB). Formed in 2001 to replace the International Accounting Standards Committee (IASC), the IASB is responsible for preparing and issuing the International Financial Reporting Standards (IFRS).
  • International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). A global organisation for the accountancy profession, IFAC’s remit includes supporting the development and adoption of international standards and building the capacity of professional accountancy organisations.

Summary

The remit of different accounting roles can vary considerably: the profession incorporates a range of diverse career paths, from forensic accounting to audit and assurance. That said, accounting roles have much in common when it comes to the need for strong maths skills and a rigorous approach to detail. Likewise, professional qualifications, a robust understanding of ethics and an ongoing commitment to CPD are the key ingredients of a successful career in this field.

 

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