It would be very easy for an employee to expect fair treatment from professionals within the company s/he’s employed with. To expect them to act within the precepts of the Golden Rule: “Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them do Unto You” which, if company management were to engage in such honorable behavior, workers would have little or nothing to worry about. But that’s not the case and therefore principles and systems must be employed.
If everyone involved in the process of accounting followed their own system, or no system at all, there would be no way to truly tell whether a company was profitable or not. Most companies follow what is commonly referred to as GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles), and there are huge tomes in libraries and bookstores devoted to just this one topic.
Unless a company states otherwise, anyone reading a financial statement can make the assumption that company has used GAAP. If GAAP is not the set of principles used for preparing financial statements, then a business needs to make clear which other form of accounting they have used and are bound to avoid using titles in its financial statements that could mislead the person examining it.
GAAP is the gold standard for preparing financial statements and/or a financial report. Not disclosing that it has used principles other than GAAP makes a company legally liable for any misleading or misunderstood data. These principles have been fine-tuned over decades and have effectively governed accounting methods and the financial reporting systems of businesses.
Different principles have been established for different types of business entities, such as for-profit and NFP (Not For Profit) companies/organizations, governments and other enterprises. GAAP is not cut and dried, however. They’re guidelines and, as such, are often open to interpretation. Estimates have to be made at times, and they require good faith efforts towards accuracy.
You have probably heard the phrase “creative accounting,” which is when a company pushes the envelope a little (or a lot) too far to make their business look more profitable than it might actually be. This is also known as massaging the numbers, a practice that can spiral out of control and quickly turn into accounting fraud (or cooking the books). The results of these practices can be devastating and ruinous to hundreds and thousands of lives, as in the cases of Enron, Rite Aid and others.