Five Internal Control Ideas for Small Businesses


Updated January 24, 2018

If we had to define the term internal controls for small businesses, we’d probably phrase it like this: “Checks and balances that business owners put into place to ensure that their accounting is accurate and that their employees don't rip them off.” That second part might sound a bit harsh but the reality is that over two-thirds of frauds are committed by employees who are placed in positions of trust, and most small businesses have relaxed work environments with little or no supervision. 

With that in mind, here are a few ways you can improve your company’s internal controls:

1. Establish good general controls.

Lock your registers and file cabinets. Keep your blank checks in a secure place. Manage your passwords carefully. These are all basic, common-sense measures but they’re easy to overlook when you’re buried in the day-to-day details of running a business.

2. Be aware of the classic fraud tricks.

Cash and inventory are by far the biggest sources of fraud for small businesses (especially retailers). The most common tricks used by employees include skimming (taking cash from the register and/or keeping cash payments from customers and then adjusting the sales receipt), stealing inventory, falsifying expense reports, and writing checks to fictitious vendors (such as friends or relatives).

3. Don’t let one person do everything.

Segregation of duties isn’t always possible at small businesses, so a good rule of thumb is this: When it comes to your accounting, don’t let one person do everything. Your bookkeeper should not be the check signer. Your bank reconciliation should be done by someone other than the person who writes the checks. Daily cash receipts should be crosschecked and deposited into the bank by somebody other than the store manager. If you have employees, you (the owner) should know your approximate average payroll for each pay period, and you should review and approve each payroll run before it gets submitted for processing.

4. Keep an eye on your bank rec.

If there’s anything strange going on with your business (such as phony checks or unauthorized withdrawals), it’ll usually show up during the bank reconciliation (or "bank rec"). Although you may think the bank reconciliation is just a boring monthly chore, it's actually a key procedure and a vital check-and-balance for every small business. In fact, one of the best internal controls you can get is to have your bank rec done by an independent, outside accountant every month. Also, you (the owner) should take time to scan your bank account on a regular basis and ask questions about anything that looks unusual. With online banking, it's never been easier.

5. Stay hands-on with your accounting.

Believe it or not, the single most important internal control for any small business is the overall atmosphere created by the owner (accountants call this the "control environment"). You should stay hands-on with the financial side of your business, not just hand everything over to a bookkeeper and trust that it's being done correctly. Take an interest in the accounting, review large invoices before they get paid, look at your financials on a regular basis, and ask lots of questions. In addition to keeping you informed, these actions show employees that you’re paying close attention to the numbers... and that's a good thing.

Legal stuff: This information is provided for educational purposes only and does not constitute advice for your specific situation.

William Keller