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Responsibilities of an Accounting Department

5 of 12 in Series: The Essentials of Accounting Basics

Most people don’t realize the importance of the accounting department in keeping a business operating without hitches and delays. That’s probably because accountants oversee many of the back-office functions in a business — as opposed to sales, for example, which is front-line activity, out in the open and in the line of fire.

Folks may not think much about these back-office activities, but they would sure notice if those activities didn’t get done. On payday, a business had better not tell its employees, “Sorry, but the accounting department is running a little late this month; you’ll get your checks later.”

Typically, the accounting department is responsible for the following:

  • Payroll: The total wages and salaries earned by every employee every pay period, which are called gross wages or gross earnings, have to be calculated. Based on detailed private information in personnel files and earnings-to-date information, the correct amounts of income tax, social security tax, and other deductions from gross wages have to be determined.

    Stubs, which report various information to employees each pay period, have to be attached to payroll checks. The total amounts of withheld income tax and social security taxes, plus the employment taxes imposed on the employer, have to be paid to federal and state government agencies on time. Retirement, vacation, sick pay, and other benefits earned by the employees have to be updated every pay period.

    In short, payroll is a complex and critical function that the accounting department performs. Many businesses outsource payroll functions to companies that specialize in this area.

  • Cash collections: All cash received from sales and from all other sources has to be carefully identified and recorded, not only in the cash account but also in the appropriate account for the source of the cash received. The accounting department makes sure that the cash is deposited in the appropriate checking accounts of the business and that an adequate amount of coin and currency is kept on hand for making change for customers.

    Accountants balance the checkbook of the business and control who has access to incoming cash receipts. (In larger organizations, the treasurer may be responsible for some of these cash flow and cash-handling functions.)

  • Cash payments (disbursements): In addition to payroll checks, a business writes many other checks during the course of a year — to pay for a wide variety of purchases, to pay property taxes, to pay on loans, and to distribute some of its profit to the owners of the business.

    The accounting department prepares all these checks for the signatures of the business officers who are authorized to sign checks. The accounting department keeps all the supporting business documents and files to know when the checks should be paid, makes sure that the amount to be paid is correct, and forwards the checks for signature.

  • Procurement and inventory: Accounting departments usually are responsible for keeping track of all purchase orders that have been placed for inventory (products to be sold by the business) and all other assets and services that the business buys — from postage to forklifts.

    A typical business makes many purchases during the course of a year, many of them on credit, which means that the items bought are received today but paid for later. So this area of responsibility includes keeping files on all liabilities that arise from purchases on credit so that cash payments can be processed on time.

    The accounting department also keeps detailed records on all products held for sale by the business and, when the products are sold, records the cost of the goods sold.

  • Property accounting: A typical business owns many substantial long-term assets called property, plant, and equipment — including office furniture and equipment, retail display cabinets, computers, machinery and tools, vehicles (autos and trucks), buildings, and land.

    Except for small-cost items, such as screwdrivers and pencil sharpeners, a business maintains detailed records of its property, both for controlling the use of the assets and for determining personal property and real estate taxes. The accounting department keeps these records.

The accounting department may be assigned other functions as well, but this list gives you a pretty clear idea of the back-office functions that the accounting department performs. Quite literally, a business could not operate if the accounting department did not do these functions efficiently and on time. To do these back-office functions well, the accounting department must design a good bookkeeping system and make sure that it is accurate, complete, and timely.

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