“You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes.” There are many versions of this popular saying (an old song even comes to my mind) and I don’t know who said it first. Perhaps it evolved from words that Jesus spoke: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” (KJV John 8:7)
Whose shoes am I asking you to walk in? The IRS auditor who is doing his job. I have had quite a few run-ins with the IRS since I became a certified public accountant in 1983. Until a couple years ago, all these confrontations involved explaining and supporting the numbers on my clients’ tax returns. My wife and I had our turn under the microscope, but the IRS issued a “No Change” verdict regarding our 2015 & 2016 joint tax returns.
However, I am thankful for the Internal Revenue Service. Someone must do the thankless job of collecting taxes. Otherwise, chaos would reign and our civilization would devolve to the Dark Ages. Additionally, every taxpayer is required to submit a tax return every year and almost half of them need professional help. (This was pointed out to me by an attorney.)
Even before I was a CPA, I audited a variety of companies and nonprofit organizations. (This was back when our tools were a Pentel mechanical pencil, columnar paper and a Sharp printing calculator.) I didn’t enjoy auditing, so I focused on taxes years ago.
Most accountants who have been around for decades have heard apocryphal tales of mistreatment of auditors. Like assigning them to stuffy rooms without air conditioning, or to dungeon-like rooms in the basement with a variety of pests. But Karma plays no favorites and people tend to reap what they sow.
Auditors of every kind have some discretion; some more than others. I purport that you should always treat any auditor as a fellow human being. Show them respect and at a minimum be professional. During their fieldwork in your office, let them use an extra conference room. Don’t put them in a closet! Show them where the bathroom is, give them a bottle of water, and tell them where the good lunch spots are.
Unfortunately, most people perceive that the IRS auditor currently examining their personal or business tax returns have already determined that they will owe more tax. In my experience, this is not the case. Most IRS auditors are looking for proof of facts. Their job is to verify the numbers on your tax return.
However, human nature is what it is. Someone is always trying to take the shortcut to success, happiness, etc. I believe this is exacerbated by the proliferation of cheap, online tax software. I have heard (but shiver at the thought) of people playing with input screens to see how they can increase their refunds. Some people can’t resist the temptation to cheat on their taxes.
That is why I am thankful for the IRS. If there were no consequences to not obeying the tax law, eventually our society would break down, our freedoms would be lost, and most people would be thrown into poverty. In football, a referee determines what actions are proper and which ones violate the rules and result in a penalty. In baseball, an umpire calls the balls and strikes and determines if a runner is out or safe.
Growing up, playing sandlot sports (baseball, football, street hockey, kickball, etc.) we had some disagreements, but we worked it out and kept playing. Now that rank and file professional athletes are millionaires, there is more at stake than at the sandlot. Respect is required of the participants for the officials in charge.
Of course, every bushel contains a few bruised apples in the bottom. In every industry there seems to be some bad actors.
If you were just notified that the IRS has selected your recent tax return for an audit, don’t let it ruin your day. Stay positive. Dig out your receipts and make the job pleasant for the auditor. Remember, “they are people too!” Give them a break and try to walk in their shoes.
I was reminded of a poem. (Please don’t infer that I compare IRS employees to the stumbling man in this poem.) I like it and feel it has a positive message.
Don’t find fault, Author Unknown:
Pray, don’t find fault with the man who limps
Or stumbles along the road,
Unless you have worn the shoes he wears
Or struggled beneath the load.
There may be tacks in his shoes that hurt,
Though hidden away from view.
For the burden he bears – placed upon your back,
Might cause you to stumble too.
Don’t be harsh with the man who sins,
Or pelt with words or stones
Unless you are sure – yes doubly sure,
That you have no sins of your own.
For you know perhaps that the tempter’s voice
Should whisper soft to you
As it did to him when he went astray
And would cause you to stagger too.
Don’t sneer at the man who’s down today,
Unless you have felt the blow
That caused his fall – or felt the shame
That only the fallen know.
You may be strong – but still the blows
That were his – if dealt to you
In the self-same way – at the self-same time
Might cause you to stagger too.
Aric Schreiner, CPA, PFS, Certified Tax Strategist, helps successful professionals and small business owners strategize to reduce taxes and audit risk.