My recent blog, “Five Things Not to Say When You Are Starting an Internal Audit,” was far and away the most popular I have written in years. The overwhelming response provided reassurance that most internal auditors strive for constructive relationships with their clients. They realize that internal audit’s value depends heavily on how our audit results are received by the intended audience. If there is friction between internal audit and the client, our ability to persuade is negatively impacted.
As my blog pointed out, the opening meeting can generate unintended tension. But I suspect many of you will agree that a much more likely source of friction is the final audit results. Sometimes, even the most professionally executed internal audit with the most constructively written report can land with a huge thud. Too often, our reports are used as the basis for evaluating management performance, with unfavorable results perhaps costing executives a bonus, a promotion, or even their job. Adverse audits can lead to “broken fences” and damage relationships.
It is practically impossible to avoid difficult situations in our line of work. It is a hazard of the trade. But no internal auditor can function effectively if surrounded by broken fences. That’s why a successful internal auditor learns, over time, the fine art of fence repair.
How do you mend a broken fence? My first piece of advice is to work tirelessly to avoid breaking it in the first place. Anticipate potential consequences of an audit and try to mitigate any potential damage before it happens. For example, discourage the use of internal audit report ratings or results for punitive purposes. As I have observed previously in this blog, also avoid using inflammatory words and phrases. Strive continuously to ensure the tone of the report does not foster lingering animosity on the part of management.
It goes without saying that you must make sure your report is valid. And, if it points out that the officials who are responsible made mistakes, make sure it also accentuates the things that were done well. I always included a “management accomplishments” section in every audit report. If it was an audit report with particularly damaging audit findings, I usually put a little extra effort into calling out pertinent accomplishments.
Avoid assigning blame to individuals by name or title; rather, speak to systemic issues and risk management and control weaknesses, without pointing fingers.
That said, you’re going to run into a situation – if you’re in this business long enough – where fences will break. No matter how congenial you might be as an internal auditor, if you are doing your job correctly, there will be an occasion when, in order to call it like it is, you are going to have to say something that may well create hard feelings or damage relationships on the other side.
If a fence is broken, you should seriously consider a fence-mending mission. Here are five strategies I have used to mend damaged relationships as a result of an audit:
Why should we care if fences have been broken? Well, internal auditors have to “live where we work.” What will tend to happen, once a fence is broken, is that the managers in that area won’t want you to audit them again. Every audit after that will start with a contentious atmosphere. Internal auditors cannot be effective in the long run if they are surrounded by broken fences.
Are you good at mending fences? Have I oversimplified a complex issue? What has worked for you? Share your best practices.