In a recent blog, I observed that in many companies management and boards do not welcome – or even permit critical scrutiny by internal auditors. Fortunately, that isn’t the norm. From my experience, a majority of organizations do recognize the importance of internal audit, and value the role it plays. But that does not mean management and boards are always happy to hear what we have to say. Being the bearer of bad news can test even the best relationships.
Every profession has its ups and downs, and internal audit is certainly no exception. In fact, some of the most awkward and, yes, even painful moments can occur when we need to deliver bad news to those whose areas of responsibility we just audited. And, if these moments are difficult for internal auditors, rest assured they are even more distressing for our clients.
Like it or not, there are times when, based on our audit results, we have to tell clients things they don’t want to hear. It’s never easy, for example, to tell someone that the audit results were “unsatisfactory.” It’s even harder to tell a colleague that you found a major fraud in their division, especially one that involved once-trusted employees or that had devastating financial consequences.
But for internal auditors, delivering difficult news is part of the job, and it’s a responsibility we shouldn’t avoid simply because of uneasiness. As Sophocles said more than 2,000 years ago, “No one loves the messenger who brings bad news.” But being the bearer of bad news doesn’t necessarily have to derail internal auditors’ relationships with their clients. There are right ways and wrong ways to deliver bad news, and how we do it can preserve or even strengthen client relationships — not end them. Our words can soften the blow or add insult to injury, impacting our audit effectiveness as well as our stress levels. That’s why every internal auditor needs to master the art of delivering bad news.
I have delivered more than my share of unpleasant news during my career. Sometimes it went well. Other times, not so well. Here are a few tips that I would offer to ease the process:
- Consider the time and place. Bad news from internal auditors can and usually should be discussed as it surfaces during the audit. An exit meeting is rarely the best place to disclose a surprise revelation of an unfavorable audit finding. Such an event creates a lot of tension, and a high risk of a negative reaction. Bad news doesn’t improve with time, and it is almost always better to deliver early and in private, once all the facts are gathered. A private meeting can help maintain the dignity of a potentially emotional or embarrassed client, and it can facilitate candid conversations. So, manage your time constraints, turn off your cell phone, and arrange for some uninterrupted privacy … without delay.
- Be direct, but be compassionate. Obviously, the facts are important when we deliver bad news, but we also need to consider our clients’ emotional reactions. An accusatory tone rarely helps. We need to present bad news clearly, without soft-pedaling potential impacts, but that doesn’t mean we should be impersonal or robotic when delivering the message. A simple phrase such as, “I’m sorry to have to tell you this,” can demonstrate your empathy. Try to imagine the situation from your client’s point of view: When someone is dealing with devastating news, it probably isn’t the best time for a stern lecture on why internal controls are important.
- Acknowledge their feelings. Using active listening skills and acknowledging your client’s feelings can help to control emotions. When someone is upset, it might seem natural to try to lighten the situation with humor or to say the issue “could have been worse.” But to an upset client, downplaying the situation or making jokes is insensitive. Telling someone that you understand they are upset shows empathy; telling them that they shouldn’t be upset simply implies that you don’t understand their point of view.
- Provide a balanced perspective. Internal auditors know that audit reports should be fair and balanced, providing good results as well as bad. The same principle holds true any time you deliver bad news. Often, you can soften the sting by also accentuating the positive results you observed during the audit. For example, if you need to tell a client that manufacturing defect rates are increasing rapidly, you might first point out the improvements you observed in the manufacturing quality assurance processes since the last audit.
- Look for possible solutions. Brainstorming with your client about potential solutions is great, but you need to be prepared. If you don’t have any potential solutions to suggest when you meet with organizational managers, they might perceive the situation as being more hopeless than it is. Obviously, you don’t need to finalize your audit recommendations before discussing bad news with management. But if you haven’t yet considered potential ideas for improving a problem situation, then you’re acting as an inspector or a fault-finder, not as a trusted advisor.
- Don’t “bargain away” internal audit findings or ratings. When a manager sees negative comments or bad ratings in a draft audit report, it is only natural that he or she might want to negotiate for more favorable results. Internal auditors need to be prepared for questions like, “Do you really have to include this in the audit report?” and “Why can’t you give me a better rating?” Or, your client might be so brazen as to say, “I will agree to this finding if you will drop that one.” Your clients’ words should always be considered to ensure the report is fair and balanced. Often, their suggestions will help clarify information or add perspective. But unless clients can show you that your facts are incorrect, it should rarely be necessary to completely eliminate a finding or to change a rating. When audit reports present facts fairly, they should never be changed simply because the client would have preferred a more favorable outcome. Being empathetic doesn’t mean being a push-over, and the rating on your audit report should reflect your opinion, not your client’s.
Delivering bad news isn’t easy, and even if you do everything right, it won’t always go well. But delivering any news with empathy and understanding can go a long way toward ensuring that problems are addressed appropriately and that you are building effective working relationships. You probably have other tips for delivering bad news tactfully and effectively. I welcome your input on this important topic.
I welcome your comments via LinkedIn or Twitter (@rfchambers).