Auditing the human element

6th May 2014

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Clara Paine

The ability to understand people and to establish a good rapport is essential for effective audits, says Shoeb Khan

From early in their careers auditors are taught that it is not the person but the process they are interested in. However, this approach does little to allay auditees' concerns and audits continue to be perceived, at best, as a mild imposition and, at worst, a tortuous interrogation.

The technical aspects of conducting an environment audit are well defined, most notably by ISO 19011. It is often, however, the more intangible elements of human and social interaction that influence the quality and outcomes of an audit. Consequently, building rapport is a key skill for an auditor and an open dialogue needs to be established early in the process.

A successful audit is one where all parties understand each other's roles, where the flow of information is not impeded by insecurities or fear, and the value of the data exchange is meaningful, particularly to those being audited. The value of an audit needs to be clearly communicated to the auditee by management and reiterated by the auditor during the pre-meeting and, depending on the scale of the audit, during its execution.

Given that professional auditors are seldom auditees themselves, it is useful to remember that the process involves dealing with people, albeit individuals placed in a contrived situation and, potentially, prone to act in an artificial way. It is important to remember that emotional intelligence is just as important as logic in achieving effective audits.

Establishing relationships

It is obvious that auditor and auditee hold different positions of power. As the party asking all the questions, as well as the one seen to work for management, custom dictates that the auditor has the higher rank. However, no audit can be considered successful without the cooperation of those being audited. From the auditee's perspective, however, participation has few positives - time away from daily duties, having to justify their actions in activities not subject to formal controls and risking exposure for taking responsibility for things others were not willing to take on. In reality, audits hold little or no direct value for them.

As well as being technically competent, auditors must also be aware of the various personality types exhibited by auditees, and the effect of the combination of these types with their own personality. The auditor must then give some latitude to auditees because an audit's contrived nature and unique pressures are likely to cause some to behave atypically. The auditor also needs to be able to pick up visual and verbal cues to ensure the audit stays on track and be able to modify a line of questioning where there is potential for an unsatisfactory outcome.

While an unwilling audit partner may pose problems, an overly enthusiastic one can be just as unhelpful, particularly when resources are limited. Meanwhile, misinterpretation or "selective listening", resulting in the presentation of inadequate information, is time-consuming and frustrating for auditees and auditors alike. In such cases, the auditor needs to be precise about the data requested and perhaps make several short requests rather than a long, complicated one. Closed questioning may also be necessary.

Interaction and exchange

According to 19011, auditors must be respectful. Respect is key to establishing and maintaining rapport. Auditors need to remember that their investigations step into an individual's domain and one where patterns of work may never have been examined. Recognising and positively reinforcing the auditee's status fosters equality and is more likely to motivate them to share information and expertise. Being interested and attentive to what is said demonstrates respect and helps strengthen relationships. From a practical perspective, it also keeps the conversation on course and prevents it getting bogged down by superfluous information. It is important that auditors avoid being drawn into conversations aimed at expending valuable time.

The interactions between auditor and auditee are delicate and need to be nurtured carefully. Auditors are trained to collect evidence objectively, to assemble facts and draw conclusions. However, a conversation may be interpreted by one party as an interview and by the other as an interrogation. It is obvious which approach is most likely to engender cooperation. By offering an unfettered, honest flow of information an auditee exposes themself to scrutiny and, potentially, for inconsistencies to be discovered. This courage needs to be recognised by the auditor and the desire to present an auditee with a "gotcha" finding needs to be resisted.

As with many situations, first impressions are important. The initial exchanges of information between auditor and auditee set the tone for the remainder of their interactions. By establishing trust early on an audit can be structured on an equal basis. The auditor needs to be mindful of the constraints and limitations placed on the auditee, and those being audited must understand the aims and objectives of the process.

Environment audits vary considerably in their scope. Where audits are in-depth, involving the same auditee or a similar small group, the auditor needs to be aware of audit fatigue and the potential for frustration. A line of enquiry that is of fundamental importance to the auditor, for example, may seem banal or overly laboured to an auditee. To keep auditees engaged, auditors may need to "check in" periodically to explain, reassure and inform auditees of the reasons for needing a specific piece of data, while also assuring themselves that the information being collated meets the stated goals. Temporarily exiting "audit mode" can provide relief for both parties in such a situation.

Daily feedback reports to clients are one way to check in and should include a restatement of the audit's goals. This approach provides a way to scrutinise the quality of the audit as well as opportunities to change the methods being used and to enable auditees to present new evidence.

Demonstrating change

During their interaction an auditor and auditee will expend considerable energy. From the auditee's perspective the audit's outcomes must be worth their time and effort. There are many rewards to cooperating in an audit that can be highlighted, including: management recognition; helping the organisation to meet its targets; being seen as a team player; and the opportunity to demonstrate knowledge to peers and superiors.

Possibly the simplest and most fundamental incentive is that an audit is the auditee's chance to make things better. Management have long recognised the benefits of employee empowerment. and audits provide staff with a voice, albeit an interpreted one. Although the outcome of an audit is uncertain, and no significant findings or non-conformities may be uncovered, where issues are identified these should be explored with the auditee and reported.

Auditors are seldom subjected to audits and this lack of personal experience can, unintentionally, set the tone for audits. Auditors need to be more aware of their behaviours and, where necessary, change how they work with auditees. There must be a shift away from the adversarial, superior-subordinate interaction that characterises many audits to a more rational, balanced approach to extracting information that is based on trust and respect.

In the field

Using DiSC behaviour theory, which assigns individuals with one of four personality types - dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance - alongside examining body language and speech cues, it is possible to quickly build a profile of an auditee. During one routine audit, I held an interview with a senior operative responsible for the wastewater treatment plant and laboratory at a site. The interviewee's short responses, rigid posture and general impatience indicated a high level of dominance. The strategy for dealing with this behaviour type is to keep things simple:

  • be quick, focused and to the point;
  • present non-conformities as challenges
  • and something to fix; and
  • examine the risk posed to performance
  • by non-conformities.

During the audit a significant issue was raised over the monitoring of chemicals' use-by dates. The need for the auditee to identify his own solution and maintain the site's blemish-free record provided the driver to develop corrective action - and understanding his personality was key to making this happen.

Header source image: istock

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