What Do They Think When They Hear We're Coming?

Richard Chambers, CIA, CGAP, CCSA, CRMA, shares his personal reflections and insights on the internal audit profession. 


Auditor: n) from the Anglo-French auditour — listener.

Are you a good listener? Funny how “auditor,” a word that started out as something so desirable, has come (for some) to evoke fear and dread — like “dentist.”

In my previous blog on “tone,” I wrote about perception and the written word. Today I’d like to revisit perception as it pertains to the way we present ourselves in person. I touched on this in a blog back in July 2012, but it bears repeating.

We are victims of the stereotypes we perpetuate. Mention the word “audit” to most people and their anxiety level will rise. For some, the closest association emotionally would be that of getting a traffic ticket. Think about it. How different would it make you feel if the policeman who pulled you over, instead of just jumping in with bad news, complimented you on your driving and positioned himself as there to help you? Okay, maybe that analogy is a stretch.

Our professional standards say we have to be objective, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be human. There’s already a tendency for people to see internal auditors as cold and impersonal. I suggest that it is incumbent upon us to change this stereotype, by 1) acknowledging that it exists, and 2) actively working to change it by honing our people skills. 

The point is that successful internal audit engagements/interviews often can begin by simply breaking the ice. A few minutes invested in getting to know the people we are auditing or interviewing as people instead of “auditees” (gosh, I hate that term), can pay dividends throughout the process, and especially when it comes to getting buy-in on implementation of audit recommendations.

Despite the stereotypes, internal auditors are human first. It’s only in trying so hard to be objective that we may accidentally flip our personality switches to off, and I believe we do so to our own detriment. I think it is possible to be collegial and objective at the same time — to “trust but verify,” as the old expression goes.

It may help to recognize that audited activity officials face exactly the same issues and challenges we do. They are under the same time pressures and the same resource constraints. The only difference is that we are fortunate enough not to be the ones being audited. And, as I often have pointed out, we should be very glad that is the case, because I am not so sure that everything we do as internal auditors is as efficient as possible.

What I’m really talking about here is empathy. Submitting to an audit is an exercise in vulnerability. A little basic human understanding can go a long way toward changing the way people think of internal auditors. Remember, our goal here is to improve the organization. That usually works best when we all work together.

I welcome your thoughts on this timeless topic.

Posted on Mar 25, 2013 by Richard Chambers

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  1. Aloha Richard,

    As always, your comments and observations are spot on. 

    I believe we are also in a disadvantaged position with the word "internal" in our role since we share it with the Internal Revenue Service.  But the greatest compliments ever received over the years have been when the "auditee" has stated: "You sure don't seem like an auditor!".


  1. A crucial factor in determining the relationship between auditor and auditee is the way that checklists are used. If they're a starting point to organise auditors' thoughts and ensure they cover all the topics that can be foreseen in advance then that's fine. They are very useful. If they're a script that dictates the conduct of the audit then that's hugely damaging.

    I've seen (and suffered) auditors working through a checklist asking questions to which the only acceptable answers were yes or no, with the auditor having barely even a superficial understanding of the issues. That approach builds a barrier between the two sides, and prevents the auditor growing in their understanding and knowledge of the area under audit.

    When I was an auditor we always took a risk-based approach that extended all the way from selection of the areas to audit thru to making recommendations. We had to probe and understand the implications of non-compliance, and keep probing till we'd got to the root cause of problems. If we did the job well the auditees could see us as useful allies, helping them clear problems stopping them doing a better job.

    Beating people up because they said no when the checklist said it should have been yes was anathema to us. That approach prevents the constructive, mutually respectful relationship that allows an auditor to understand what is really going on; it is ultimately unprofessional. Crude, checklist compliance auditing pays lip service to auditing, rather than doing it properly. It earns auditors the well deserved contempt of auditees. You don't get much of value from people who think you're a dangerous idiot!

    Good interpersonal skills and treating people respectfully are not optional extras for auditors. They are part of the basic toolset if they want to be effective, valuable and professional.

  1. Richard - your comments hit home for me!  I enjoy your writtings / opinions...

    Auditors (myself included) forget to be human... Yes and all we have to do is treat people as we want to be treated!  One of the most basic people skills known to mankind.  I have noticed throughout the years that many folks lack this quality and it is difficult to cultivate if these very basic of social skills do not exist in the first place.  If you are going on a fact finding mission and need information from any one of your stakeholders...be pleasant, have a real discussion and enjoy the moment.  Trust me - this simple step will go a long way in goodwill (i.e. getting information effeciently & effectively). 

    Empathy...always put yourself in their shoes.  WHY NOT!  We are on the same side and if you as an auditor do not reiterate that, expand on it then you are missing the boat. Our first goal should be changing the word "auditee".- - let's not call them that.  What about business partner.



  1. Richard et al. I thought what they do when we are coming was to hide everything. Anyway this is an important article. We use to start entrance meetings by saying there were two big lies in the organization and we needed to clarify. The first was when the internal auditors said "we are here to help you", and the second was when the auditees nodded with a smile and said, "yes we know, glad you are here" That always drew a nice laugh and then we explained the role of audit and shared perspectives. I also think James made a good point about checklist. There is African proverb that goes: The fool speaks, the wise man listens. Roger
  1.  This perspective on human emotion and perception is really interesting when applied to the field of auditing.  Thanks for the insightful post!

  1. Yes ... of course the first thinking would be " my God ! " ....again ! Leaving the lighter side of it...if we want our visits to be more pleasant for the auditees we need to build the credibility step by step. It will not come overnight. What we do out side our regular audit visits only make them feel at home with us . The following are few but there are many more... We used to organize interactive educational programs for operating teams out side the audit visits. This is an auditee inclusion process. Next , we invite them for the local IIA Chapter meetings in an evening. Senior operating people are invited for a panel discussion on internal audit. This makes them understand the audit fraternity more closer in an informal setting. Also, we join them in annual in-house exhibitions to put up an audit stall next to a marketing stall or a Production stall and exhibit our success stories. During the month of MAY every year we used to display IIA slogans / posters talking about internal auditors in a positive way. Send our internal house journal for audit department and share thoughts with them. Naturally when ever our audit team members visit , the opening talk will center around what we do and how we progress in the organization and this puts the auditee team at ease. It's very essential that we show our human face first ! I fully agree with you. Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts. Regards. Rajeswaran
  1. You are spot on Mr. President.

    In my over 8 years of internal auditing, i have interracted with polarised reactions from clients when they hear that we are coming. Some are very welcoming and consequently helpful to the whole process, but others seem to see a 'dentist' in us... often worried of the impact of our findings. Reasons are many and varied:

    how we carry ouselves; level of organisational maturity; advocacy efforts; control environment; auditor status, position and competence; cultural perceptions; repurcations of findings and attitude towards findings.

    For instance I know of friends in the profession who have a 'caught you' attitude towards clients and celebrate their findings as if they are not aware of the defination of internal auditing in improving organisational operations. i know of others who make no effort to exlain the objectives of our assignments and minimise the perception gaps with clients. Sometimes we also havent liased with clients to appreciate their perceptions of risks and values and sort of assurance they need in their operations - all these would enhance their 'buy in' and consequently better their attituted when they hear 'we are coming'. 

    its not easy but its one area that requires continous learning and improvement. Small wonder experience is the best teacher!!





  1. every day i learn something new about internal auditing. I use this website for my go to place for a lot of great info. thanks again for the knowledge. 

  1. Great article,

    I admit, I use to categorize the word "auditor" with some not so friendly 4 letter words.  Once I found out exactly what an auditor does and thier purpose, I had a whole new respect them.  



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