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Quarterly: Fall 2020 - Gary Blackmer

Building Trust and Managing Auditee Conflict

By Gary Blackmer

Sometimes conflict with people we audit can’t be, and shouldn’t be, avoided. You hitch up your nerve and look agency management in the eye and calmly explain problems they should have known and didn’t fix. That’s why you’re paid as much as the department heads you’re auditing. You’re not? Bummer.

If you have maintained good communications during the audit, management shouldn’t be surprised when they see the draft. You should follow the notion put forth by Heifetz and Linsky in their book, Leadership on the Line, by giving out bad news in a series of doses that management can handle.

If that strategy doesn’t work, here’s a story about addressing the core of their concerns. I had just started with the state and the team was wrapping up an audit of the failure of county district attorneys to participate in a state program. The team was meeting with the chair of the state DA’s association who had signaled his unhappiness with the draft. I always considered it my job to be there for tough situations and defend my teams.

As we were driving to his county, I asked the two auditors how they made decisions about changes to the draft. They said that they were expected to talk through the draft but only write down agency concerns and take them back to the office for consideration by the managers. I told them that from now on in these exit meetings they could make wording changes that clarify or correct, or have little consequence to the finding.

We went into the DA’s office and he started the meeting with an attack on the wording in the audit, and also the audit team, for basically being clueless. [Key lesson: bring them back to the audit report. It’s not about you.] I asked him to show me some wording that bothered him. “Well, here,” he said, flipping through the pages, “You say ‘the district attorneys claim they don’t have the resources to do all the paperwork.’ You make it sound like you doubt us.”

“How about if we change that to ‘the district attorneys stated that they don’t have the resources’?” I asked.

And just like that, all his loud and blustery manner slipped away. Sometimes it’s just a word here and there in the draft. Changing a word also signals that we are listening and responding in a constructive way. If the team had followed the office practice, they would have suffered a long and bruising meeting because that word was on the last page of the audit. [Bonus key lesson: don’t use the word “fail” except for extremely dire findings. “Did not” means the same thing, without the rude tone.]

Another strategy is to bring agency personnel back to the facts. [Key lesson: make the draft review a collaboration to get the facts straight.] Tell them that you want the report to be accurate and you will carefully review any evidence they can provide to correct your findings. Sometimes, you might be wrong and listening will save you public embarrassment.

If they ask for three more days to write a response to the audit, give it to them unless they’ve abused the privilege before. You’ve been working on the audit for months and you drop it on them in your own time with your own fixed deadline. You might get a more thoughtful response with a few extra days. You can be firm and tell them your normal practice, but still grant a little flexibility.

There was another lesson with that audit team. They were competent, experienced auditors and deserved to be trusted with some of the decision-making. Trust is an important component within an effective organization.

These kinds of strategies establish a respectful dialog between the auditor and the agency. Underlying all of it is that notion of building trust. I wrote an earlier column about trust because I was enthusiastic about a book by Stephen Covey (the son) called The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything.

It’s not a long book and I strongly encourage you to read it, because many of its ideas relate to our profession of auditing. True, it is directed more at business managers, with many of its examples drawn from that world, but the ideas are fundamental to our world. Covey describes the characteristics that build trust within our organizations, and then how we can gain the trust of others outside our organization.

He introduces four “cores” which people use to assess a person: integrity, intent, capability, and results. Integrity means that a person acts in harmony with their deepest values and beliefs. He could have lifted his definition from our Government Auditing Standards which state that, “Acting with integrity means that auditors place priority on their responsibilities to the public interest” (3.10).

Covey describes intent as the positive motives and actions that a person pursues. Auditors with an intent to improve an agency’s operations will be perceived as more trusted. Capability is the third core, which is the ability to perform our work with excellence. Auditors need to be smart enough to produce an audit with persuasive findings. Lastly, we are judged by our results, which will take some time to accrue, but connects all the promises and potentials to something real.

If you and your fellow auditors exhibit these characteristics, you are likely to have calmer meetings with management about draft audit findings. They may disagree with your evidence, wording, or conclusions but that will not transform into attacks on your integrity or intent. If you do your work well, management will discover you are indeed capable of developing worthwhile results.

Covey extends these four cores to organizations. The reputation of a business is dependent on that same notion of trust. Businesses devote so much attention to their ‘brand’ because they want customers to attach trust to the brand. Auditors have a brand, and trustworthiness is our key characteristic. We have other characteristics not so endearing, like boring and geeky. I can live with the boring and geeky to preserve that precious trustworthiness.

Covey notes that the reputation of trust is built from the organization out. Businesses can’t buy advertising to be trusted, but must weave it into the fabric of the organization. To make that work, the leaders must show the characteristics that build trust and model the behavior for everyone within the organization.

The book goes into the 13 behaviors that are exhibited by high-trust people. These are aspects of character as well as words and actions that build trust among the people who perceive and experience them. If you have ever known or worked for someone who built a trusting relationship you will recognize those behaviors.

Covey also describes the opposite of these behaviors that break trust with others. Read down the right column to see if the words evoke someone you knew, or know. Even one or two of the behaviors can break trust and create lasting bad memories of someone who abused the truth and everyone around them. I’ve always believed that we can learn as much from a bad boss as a good boss. The bad stuff stands out, and lives in our memory as an example of what not to do.

As many people have lost trust in institutions, even in facts themselves, we have a professional responsibility to devote ourselves to the behaviors in the left column. We must all contribute to a workplace that embodies trust.

About the Author

Gary Blackmer has been conducting audits for 30 years and recently retired from his position as Director of the Oregon Audits Division. The Division conducts performance, financial, and information technology audits, monitors financial audits of local governments, and responds to hotline allegations. Previously, Blackmer served 10 years as the elected Portland City Auditor, eight years as elected Multnomah County Auditor, a management auditor, and analyst for a variety of state and local agencies. Blackmer is a past-Chair of the Pacific Northwest Intergovernmental Audit Forum, and past-President of the Association of Local Government Auditors. He received the ALGA Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.