One Way

“Audit Said so” is NOT a Reason!

I worked as a bank teller for about five years, after I got my undergrad degree. Equal parts human regulatory encyclopedia, expert cashier, and crisis negotiator. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Being a teller is one of the best ways to prepare for a future in Internal Audit. Better than working at a firm, getting a degree, or becoming certified.

One of the branches where I worked was inside a big box store with several small businesses attached, and one of our regular customers was a neighboring optical shop. Each morning, one of the girls in a white lab coat (they were all girls) would bring in a deposit of the prior day’s sales, along with a set of complicated instructions. They needed a copy of the deposit slip and checks, in some sort of order, and a manual date stamp on the receipt. 

Of course the receipts were already dated and documents were all imaged. They also would ask us to initial the receipt if they made a cash deposit; a meaningless thing to do. 

Big, Scary AUDITORS!

One day, I made some sort of mistake. The tech just stared at me near tears and said she would get “written up by audit” if I didn’t correct it.

Something about this optical shop, and their insistence that we bank tellers do certain things to appease their auditors, stands out in my memory. I didn’t know anything about auditors, but my common sense and instincts told me something was not right. 

“The auditors will write me up!” was their go-to line. They would practically recite it while we were handling their transactions, even if there were no issues! What did these auditors think was so important, and why were these young ladies so terrified?

What’s the Real Issue?

If you read the headline of this post, you already know my position, and we can safely assume at least one person was terribly confused in this situation. 

The optician probably brought someone in to test quality control from time to time, so he or she could focus on vision. Maybe this person was on a huge power trip. Maybe they enjoyed “writing up” these young workers, eager to prove their value to the business owner who had hired them. Maybe the auditor’s motivations were pure, and a simple suggestion was misread or lost in translation.

Wherever that business went off track, let us be very clear. “Audit said so!” does not mean anything without a real reason behind it or consequence of inaction.

A Practical Example

So what would an effective auditor would do in similar circumstances? Let’s say you’re the internal auditor at a company which owns and operates optical shops, and perform site audits at each location annually. One of your locations regularly reports cash shortages at the end of the day. You are concerned about employee theft or incompetence.

The location in question should be moved up in the rotation of site audits. When you get there, observe the staff, surprise count the register, and perform fraud interviews. Discuss your concerns with the manager. 

Now let’s say your company has a policy of making daily deposits, but you notice that if this team gets busy at closing time they fail to balance the cash register and prepare the deposit, leaving the team that opens the next day to figure it all out. In their rush to open and help customers, cash doesn’t always reconcile properly. There’s your issue, and you should write it up.

The policy of daily balancing and timely bank deposits exists for several important reasons; cash management, separation of duties, and financial accuracy. You are simply stating that they need to follow the policy. It’s not your job to write their controls, find the culprit, or fix the problem of missing cash. It is your job to independently and objectively assess them, and report your findings.

When Auditors are the Problem

Earlier, I threw out the possibility that an auditor was on a power trip of some kind. Reflect on whether you know a person like this in the industry. The “do as I say” personality type isn’t uncommon in our world. If we are being honest, most of us would admit having succumbed to this a time or two, out of exhaustion or frustration. Some days you are just so sick and tired of being questioned and challenged, you may pull out the “because I said so” defense.

Auditors are not powerful, so if you want to be a real decision maker, start looking for a position as a C-Suite executive or Board member. Furthermore, if you have deemed an issue worthy of reporting, you should be ready to defend it. Think critically about the reasoning behind a policy you are telling people to follow, and a real life consequence of failing. 

I realize this is a very fine line. If you have crossed it, don’t worry, you’re in very good company here! Just allow yourself to step back, and consider whether you are adding value or not, every time you put pen to paper and write up an issue. You and your auditees will be better for it.

When Auditors are Not the Problem

There are a lot of auditors out there who do not engage in the bad behaviors I described, but regularly deal with the “audit said so” attitude at their companies. The problem at the very root of this is accountability. Let’s use a familiar example to bring this point home.

Remember being graded on a curve in college? A certain number of people will fall into each grade tranche based on the distribution of exam scores, minus any outliers. Say you get a B on an exam, and you wanted an A. You go to office hours and ask your professor “why did I get a B?” Would your professor say “Well, because of the curve, I had ten Bs and you were one”? No, of course not! You got a B because you got some of the questions wrong. The professor should be skilled enough to help you identify your weaknesses, allowing you to be better prepared next time.

In my metaphor, you are the professor. Some of your “students” will just complain about you, rather than take any personal accountability. The star students will use test results to better themselves, learn from mistakes, and self-correct.

Ways to Improve

One of the best ways to help auditees understand the reasons for your issues and findings is to be 100% clear on them yourself. If you are confident and prepared when discussing issues, it will impress upon others.

Consider another metaphor. If a document you are reviewing is full of spelling errors, you can either tell the preparer which words are spelled incorrectly, or tell them to use spell check. We have computers, so there is no need for you to be one! This thought process just might change the way you approach some of your reports and conversations.

Since accountability is the root issue, auditees need to write their own action plans and set their own expected completion dates. Then, when you perform your routine updates and tracking, you are keeping them accountable to their own targets. If they can’t meet a deadline which they set for themselves, it’s fair for you to ask why, and it’s important for your stakeholders to see how this plays out.

The Really Difficult Question

Now let’s say you are doing your best at all this. You consciously avoid pointless audit issues, you prepare full root cause analyses for everything you find, and you talk your auditees through the reasons behind your reports. And still, your leadership and their direct reports see you as the bad guy. I suspect, friend, that it is time to start looking for a new job!

Now, of course different people are made of different stuff. Maybe you see this scenario as a challenge to engage others on an important issue. Maybe you just decide to show up, do your work, and don’t worry about whether or not people take you seriously because their money is green. I’ve been there, and don’t begrudge anyone in need of a paycheck. I don’t say this lightly, and I realize this simply isn’t an option for everyone. Just imagine what your career will be like five or ten years down the road if you stay.

However these issues play out at your company, you have the power to be objective, set boundaries, and comport yourself as a true professional!