Monday, 11 March 2013

auditor for the day

Yesterday felt cold, but today felt a lot colder, because the wind had got up.  I was slightly late to work, since the car turned out to be more frozen than I thought it would be when I started it up, and after skating several metres down the lane near home I took things very steady.  The manager was later, because he encountered four traffic accidents along his route to work.  My young colleague was ill for the second day running and didn't make it at all, but there wasn't much for two people to do, let alone three.

Most of the fleece had stayed where we put it yesterday afternoon, but the double row of narrow fleece over the Cistus had lifted and twisted itself up in the wind.  It shows we were right to have raided stock for more of the 1.5 metre wide stuff.  The lavenders were looking miserable despite their protective covering, but if you are a lavender plant then lumps of frozen snow lying on your leaves are about equally bad whether or not there is an intervening coat of very thin man-made felt.

I asked nicely if I could have a look in the van that calls on Monday selling instantly appealing plants, as a reward for having worked so hard to put the roses out, and because there was nothing else to do.  I love going in the van.  All the plants look so inviting, and at this time of the year they have young clumps of rhubarb, all of which I covet.  I already have three rhubarb plants, which is more than enough for two people, one of whom isn't even especially keen on rhubarb, but I keep feeling the urge to plant more, when I see such tempting pots of it.  The manager and owner chose a few trays of primroses and daffodils in flower, to add instant colour for next weekend's spring event.  Guided garden walk and propagating talk, tea, coffee and cake, all free and gratis.  Let's hope the weather is better by then.  The manager was very despondent as we looked at the shelves of aubretia and polyanthus.  I told him that things could have been worse, since it was not actually snowing, but then it started to snow.

It snowed quite heavily at times, which with the snow blowing off the roof of the shop and the tops of the tunnels was enough to make it look like a blizzard, though it didn't settle.  I stuck price labels on the plants out of the van.  After that I was stuck for anything to do, when the owner appeared with a file and a large pile of redeemed gift vouchers.  My job, it turned out, was to tick off the ones that had been used against the list of those issued.

We don't take part in the national garden gift voucher scheme, but we do issue our own vouchers.  They are printed in the office on A5 sized heavy paper, with our logo at the top, a printed value, and spaces for the issuing member of staff to date and sign them, and assign them a number.  Details of vouchers sold are recorded on a sheet that lives in a concertina file with the blank vouchers, and you put down how much the voucher was for, the date, and your initials.  Voucher numbers are written on the sheet, so if the last voucher issued was 2045 then you issue number 2046, and so on.  When the sheet of issued vouchers is full it goes up to the office to be filed, and you start a new sheet.

It is an accounting system hand-crafted out of tofu.  Voucher number 2071 was written with a rather truncated 7, that could have been a 1, so the next voucher issued was 2012, not 2072.  Voucher numbers that had been used once already were repeated all the way down to the bottom of the page, when the numbers jumped forward for some reason to 2055, then continued repeating back up to 2071.  You could work out whether a given voucher was the original 2066 or the repeated one by looking at the value, the date of issue and the identity of the issuer, so from a strictly informational point of view it didn't really matter. It was messy, though.  I wrote a note to the owner suggesting that if we had pre-numbered sheets that shouldn't happen.

It is a weakness in the system that vouchers are issued by hand, and not reconciled to voucher sales put through the till.  It occurred to me that while in order to forge a voucher you would need to be able to copy one of our signatures, it was logically possible and easy for anyone who worked in our shop to create the odd voucher and give it to their friends or relatives to be spent in a couple of months time.  The check that I was doing proved that the voucher had been issued by a member of staff, but it didn't prove it had been paid for. As it happens, I don't think that any of us are stealing from our employers by dint of creating illicit vouchers, but a well-run company has good systems in place to protect it from human error, while we rely on good humans to protect us from systems errors.  I explained to the manager how easy this particular staff scam would be, and he was shocked, so I added it to my note to the owner.

Sometimes our customers don't want to spend the whole value of their voucher at once.  Because we are kind people, and want our customers to like shopping with us and be happy and come back another time, we don't insist on cancelling the unused portion like some big chains and national schemes.  Instead we write on the voucher that they have used £7.02 of their voucher and have £22.98 left on it, and give the voucher back to them, and write a note to the owner saying that there was a £7.02 voucher sale.  The little notes are sent up to the office at the end of the day, and put in the big pile of redeemed vouchers, to be dealt with at a later date.  There is no standard proforma for the little notes, which are of variable quality.  Some repeat the information on the original voucher, its number and value, and they are easy to match up with the voucher when the rest of the money is spent and it's finally handed in.  Some just say there was a voucher sale for £29.46, and a date if you're lucky.  These are not so easy to match up.  In fact, you can be reduced to using clues like what pen was used, and whose handwriting the note and the annotations on the voucher are in.

Unless you match up the slips and the vouchers, preferably on a regular basis, you can't tell whether the claim that there was a part-voucher sale of £29.46 is grounded in reality.  If I wished to defraud my employers, which as it happens I don't, it would be entirely possible for me to put a £30.00 cash sale through as a voucher sale.  The customer would never notice, and I would give them their change as normal.  Later on I could take the £29.46 from the till, and replace it with a note saying that a voucher had been partially used.   I explained this potential scam to the manager, who was shocked, and added it to my note to the owner, with the suggestion that it would be helpful to have forms to fill in to prompt my colleagues to record the voucher number and amount, or else take the original voucher back and issue a part-redeemed replacement voucher.  Given the impossibility of persuading most of my co-workers to fill in any kind of form, the latter would be preferable.

By the end of the afternoon I was down to the hard core of problem vouchers, the ones with no number, plus the ones redeemed in stages that didn't tie up with any of the little notes.  I tied the ones I'd ticked off into neat bundles with sleeves saying they were checked, and folded the odds and sods into another bundle for the owner to have a go at them.  In the end, as a small business employer you have to decide whether you trust your staff, and draconian systems that make everyone feel they are under suspicion can be counter-productive.  There have been times in the past when we've had runs of till shortfalls, and everyone has fallen under suspicion.  They are very disheartening, and make going into work a depressing experience, and I have always thought how misplaced they were.  Apart from the fact that I didn't think any of us would do that, there were so many easier ways of stealing from our employers if we'd wanted to, that they would never have detected.

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