How Do I … Communicate Bad News?

Any communication can be challenging — even when the news being delivered is positive — but when the news to be delivered is negative (e.g., identifying a control deficiency or alerting management to fraud), the job of delivering it can be even more stressful. In these situations, the internal auditor’s ability to communicate takes on increased importance. An organized, thoughtful approach can make that task easier and more constructive.
Internal auditors may find one protocol, the “ABCDE” mnemonic adapted from an article published in the October 1999 issue of the Western Journal of Medicine, helpful when planning a communication strategy: Advance preparation, Build the environment, Communicate well, Deal with reactions, and Encourage.
As is the case with many tasks, advance preparation is an important element of effectively communicating bad news. Internal auditors can avoid wasted time and potentially embarrassing mistakes by having the facts before delivering their findings to others. This includes carefully reviewing findings and confirming their understanding of critical issues in advance.
The setting for the meeting also is an important factor, as it should allow internal auditors to maintain control over the meeting’s direction. Optimally, the meeting should occur in a place that is private, where the participants are not distracted, and where interruptions are kept to a minimum.
Using direct, clear language to communicate bad news — while still being sensitive to the audience’s feelings — is an imperative skill for internal auditors to possess. Although it may be tempting to dance around an issue or use euphemisms to try to soften the blow, that approach can add confusion — and ultimately only delays the inevitable. A straightforward, honest delivery is generally the best policy. However, internal auditors also must keep in mind that some words (e.g., scam and scheme) are emotionally charged and may elicit negative reactions from the audience.
Because emotions may be running high, client reactions may take the form of a personal attack on the auditor, but he or she must take care not to react defensively or place blame. Above all, auditors must keep in mind that their role is to communicate information so that appropriate corrective measures can be taken — not to engage in personal attacks or value judgments. These types of situations often can be diffused by sticking to the facts.

Once the news has been delivered, it is time to determine the next steps. As management or the audit committee struggles to determine the necessary corrective actions, the internal auditor can make what is perhaps his or her biggest contribution to the process — providing encouragement and constructive suggestions.

The fear of unknown consequences can make bad news seem even worse. By doing some advance research to help answer these types of questions, the internal auditor can make a valuable contribution to the organization by helping contain the extent of the unknown.

Adapted from “The ABCs of Communicating Results,” by Deborah Archambeault and Morgen Rose (Internal Auditor, "Back to Basics," December 2010).

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