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Quarterly: Fall 2020 - Joyce Chih

Auditees or collaborators?

By Joyce Chih

As auditors, we carry our own mission and goals into each audit, most of which center around improving the accountability, efficiency, and effectiveness of an organizations’ operations. Unfortunately, auditees may not always see the audit process as constructive and may instead feel targeted or chastised. I speculate that many of us have experienced this first-hand or heard stories about such instances at some point in our careers as auditors.

When I started my first audit, I was determined to build a positive, collaborative work experience and help my auditees understand how my work could contribute value to their own. Not only would this strengthen the audit process by opening a line of communication, but it afforded me the opportunity to improve my interpersonal skills. More specifically, this mindset had the potential to help me better understand the operational issues and give me better access to any data or documentation.

The Backstory

Starting my own audit last year was exciting, but I was a little apprehensive about leading the audit and building a good relationship with my auditees. At that time, I had just joined my office and had only been auditing for about four months. Working with my supervisor to finish her audit, I attended her monthly meetings and met her auditees. I admittedly was in observation mode during these meetings as I was still grasping how to communicate with auditees that were oftentimes in managerial positions. From the initial minutes of the first meeting, I noticed how conversational it was. The future meetings were similar: they always started with a quick exchange on how everyone was doing and if anything exciting was going on in their lives or in their day. Perhaps this is simply ordinary workplace small talk, but what struck me was the ease at which the conversation flowed. Of course, once we got to discussing the actual results and findings of our field work, everyone did not always agree with everything that was said. Nevertheless, the amiable tone of the meetings—likely due to interactions since the beginning of the audit—made the difficult discussions easier.

When I initiated my audit, I was cautious going into my first few auditee meetings. I wanted to replicate the level of rapport I saw while working with my supervisor, but I also anticipated wariness on the auditees’ part in response to being audited. After all, each auditee is different and each audit topic or operational area varies in sensitivity and may incite differing levels of caution and defensiveness.

In my case, the audit topic was the City’s green efforts, a relatively broad topic that overlapped business lines in multiple departments. Two of the departments I dealt with had Sustainability Managers who primarily led projects within their own department. More generally, departmental division managers led projects that fell within distinct operational areas.

My main audit contact was one of the City’s two Sustainability Managers. She was generally aware of green efforts in the City overall and in divisions within her department, though she also had her niche focus and specific projects that she was managing. Our first few meetings went well. They were occasionally a little awkward as we had not worked together for long, and small talk felt more like politeness than genuine comfortableness. However, our interactions over time became less awkward, more communicative, and more collaborative, and working with her was ultimately a great experience.

Given the nature of the audit, I also worked in depth with other operational managers across the City. Meetings with these managers often occurred on a much tighter timeline than with my main auditee, whom I worked with throughout the entire audit, which meant I had to quickly make them feel comfortable while also ensuring that my questions were thoroughly addressed.

The Approach

To bridge the discomfort (at best) or aversion (at worst) that auditees may feel towards being audited with the positive potential of the audit experience, my approach was to constantly refer to my mental checklist below throughout each interaction. Though some of these may be obvious, I take them as a reminder that while each auditee may respond differently, I can still try to alleviate some of their concerns without compromising the informational purpose of these interactions. My checklist is as follows:

  • Frame initial questions as their opportunity to help me understand the problems they face in their daily operations. Of course, other issues may arise as I ask for clarification or as I test for controls later in the audit process, but this initial stance helps set the tone that this is a collaborative effort to improve operations, not an attack on their capabilities. This may also help the auditees separate what I am auditing—such as the program or organizational function—from their positions, thereby facilitating better communication. Although they in their positions obviously play a role in how a program or function operates, this may help them realize at the onset that the audit process is not meant to be personal.
  •  Understand their operational challenges. Once auditees communicate what their biggest challenges are, empathizing with their experience and considering whether these challenges may be relevant to the audit scope can demonstrate to them that I am listening to their concerns. Even if these challenges are not audit-related, they can make for good conversation and lessen any tensions. As appropriate, share relevant work stories too! It can make the meeting more amiable.
  • Provide reassurance and context. Our auditees may not think the same way we do about documentation, efficiency, and controls because making improvements to these areas oftentimes translates to more work for them. However, giving explanations for why I am concerned and what the risk is early on may better help them understand why these findings are important and how they can address the issues. In other words, consider using the elements of a finding as a communication tool. Doing so may help them understand what is being asked of them so they know what to expect when the draft of the report is complete.
  • Be firm, approachable, and respectful. As an auditor, I have my job to do. I had to learn to be confident in communicating my testing results to my auditees in an assured yet approachable manner. At the same time, I acknowledged that my auditees were also just trying to do their day-to-day jobs and reminded myself to be respectful of their expertise.

The Takeaway

In my first audit, my auditee experience was largely positive. I was fortunate to work with auditees who were open to suggestions and I was able to amicably handle any concerns. As a new auditor, there were still some personal challenges I had to overcome, such as wording questions in ways that could not be misinterpreted and not being nervous when asking difficult questions. I realize that my next experience may be completely different. While I can employ my reminders from above to the best of my abilities, auditees may still vary in their responses. That itself will be another learning experience.

Despite the challenges inherent to working with auditees, I like to think of these experiences as an opportunity to not only build professional relationships but to improve the perception of performance audits (and auditors) within our respective organizations.


About the Author

Joyce Chih joined the Sacramento City Auditor's Office in December 2018. She graduated with a Master of International Affairs from the University of California, San Diego's School of Global Policy and Strategy. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts in International Studies, with a focus in Economics and a minor in Business.