Auditing is an unusual profession for many reasons, one of which is our high turnover. Many auditors, even those less than ten years out of college, can list a handful of companies on their resume. If you’re like me, this could be from a relocation or making the transition to Internal Audit from a CPA firm. You may have left a company in search of greener pastures, or been forced to look for a job when the economy soured. Or, something could have gone wrong.
It happens. This is a post about leaving a job because things are not working out, and it’s not getting better. It happens to everyone, but the situations that cause people to leave their jobs voluntarily vary greatly. There are extreme examples; circumstances where it would be an unethical or complicit act to stay employed at a company engaging in bad behavior. More commonly, auditors can find themselves at companies where the proper governance systems are broken, or they are undermined and rendered obsolete by bad decisions.
When is it righteous to stay and fight, and when is walking away the only reasonable option? What red flags can readers look for, and what advice can be offered?
Always be Able to Quit
My first opinion on this topic is universal advice. You should always be able to quit. Put yourself in the position where if something bad happens, you are able to walk away with minimal repercussions to your finances and career trajectory. If your livelihood is entirely dependent on keeping your position or appeasing a large client, can you really be considered independent and objective?
You’re an auditor. You will always be able to find a job. That said, there are simple steps you can take to make any future transitions as easy as possible. First, and most obvious, you should save some money. If you have the working capital to sustain yourself for 3-6 months, you have the ability to walk away from a bad situation without creating a personal crisis.
Second, get your certifications in order. If you are working towards a CPA, CIA or other professional certification, the sooner you get that done the better off you will be. Having three letters behind your name can make a difference in a competitive job market. There’s always something going on, so don’t make excuses or tell yourself you will do it a month, six months or a year from now. A lot can happen in a year! I took the CPA exam during busy season, and know many colleagues who have done the same. I took the CIA exam when I was working full time, commuting, and taking care of a baby. It was exhausting, and I had to sacrifice some time with my family, but I got it done. You can too!
Third, always be looking. Even if things are good at work, you should keep your resume updated and participate in industry networking. Connect with recruiters, partners at firms and business owners. If the tide goes out, it will be easier for you to bounce back if you have cultivated a professional network. It also can’t hurt if your bosses see how well-connected you are!
Know and State Your Boundaries
The situations that can lead an auditor to resign are a matter of personal circumstances and individual ethics. This is your career and your life, and therefore resigning can only be your decision. Your line in the sand may be the “newspaper test” where you imagine an event being reported in a news outlet, consider how it looks to an outsider, and use that perspective to decide whether to resign a position or fire a client. Or you may be a more instinctual person, and decide to leave if you are uncomfortable, even if you can’t put your finger on why.
Once you know where your boundary is, clearly state it to your direct reports, CEO (or audit leader), Board and Audit Committee. The people in your circle should know what you will and will not tolerate. Then, if actions or events ever cross your personal boundary, leave and don’t look back. Someone once told me that the best way to bluff is not to be bluffing, and I took it to heart. If you find a situation at work untenable, leave. Don’t threaten to leave, just leave. A bluff can only work one time anyway; your self-respect is more valuable.
Promises, Promises, Promises
The first red flag that it may be time to leave your position is not in the realm of “how will this look in the news.” It’s much more boring, and therefore more common: broken promises.
The obvious truth is that anyone can promise anything at any time to anyone. When you’re new in a position, it’s very likely that you will promise certain things to your CEO and Audit Committee; increased productivity, improved efficiency, quality deliverables, etc. In turn, they may promise you a promotion or raise if you meet certain targets, additional staff and responsibilities if you show you are capable, or other types of recognition which may be really important to you.
Now consider what will happen if you break your promises. Some might not be a very big deal, and can be easily forgiven. But if you do not complete the projects you committed to, have no significant findings over a given period, or struggle to meet baseline expectations, you would expect to be put on a performance improvement plan or even terminated. Why should your expectations for the people you report to be any different?
If your Audit Committee fails to support you publicly, despite their assurances behind closed doors, that is a broken promise. If your CEO fails to give you a promotion that was contingent on performance metrics, which were all met, that is a broken promise. If you have made good on your end of a transaction, but the rewards you were promised have not been forthcoming, it is definitely time to consider whether you would be better off elsewhere.
Lack of Trust
A lot of what we do in the audit world, and business in general, is a matter of trust. Job experience, life experience, and professional certifications can certainly help you make good business decisions, but at the end of the day the relationship between you and your bosses is built on trust. They trust that you are the person you say you are, went to the college you listed on your resume, and that the things you tell them are the truth, or as close to it as you can get based on evidence and analysis. You in turn are placing a lot of trust in the people you report to. You trust them to have good intentions towards you, to make impartial decisions and to treat you fairly.
Trust does not mean that your overseers don’t have the right to question you; they absolutely do! An engaged Audit Committee member who trusts that you are competent and truthful will question you about the substance or results of an audit report. An ineffective Audit Committee member who does not trust you will just question your ability to produce the report in the first place, making a functional conversation impossible. A CEO who trusts you will collaborate to make the company better, even if you don’t always agree. A CEO who doesn’t trust you and sees you as an obstacle to the company’s success will not support your initiatives or provide the backing necessary to complete an effective Audit Plan.
Why and how we lose trust in one another is a topic bigger than this post. I’ll just point out that there are so many jobs out there. Why spend your precious time working for people who don’t trust you? Why toil away to benefit people who you don’t trust?
They Just Don’t Get You
One of the difficulties of our job is that we often have to tell people things they don’t want to hear. This is hard enough, and it can be exacerbated if some of the people we report to are not be fully versed in what we do. Your CEO very likely does not have an audit background, and you may not have a working auditor sitting on your Board or Audit Committee. Many audit executives spend a considerable amount of time explaining their purpose, procedures and theory to the people they report to. That’s not a problem, but it can be the gateway to a difficult situation. What if the people you report to just don’t get you?
Do you spend considerable time explaining the purpose of reports, tracking, follow-up, sampling, productivity, efficiency and other audit concepts in the meetings you have with your bosses? Do the same questions come up over and over? Do people ask you questions out of interest, or because they don’t understand the underlying concepts? Is their tone thoughtful and curious, or cynical and sarcastic?
If you feel like you and your bosses aren’t on the same page, do some work on yourself. Ask them what they need, what they want to know, and how you can help. Try to present them information the way they want to see it, rather than the way it makes sense to you. But if they just don’t seem interested in what you are telling them, despite all the work you’ve put in, I would advise you to start looking. You need allies to be effective, and a disengaged CEO or Audit Committee chairperson will not support you if things get contentious.
Living in the Past
Wherever you work, I’m sure you have at least one person you interact with who just can’t seem to resolve things or let go of the past. Their audit issues linger quarter after quarter, they bring up past disagreements in meetings with no clear purpose, or blindside you with problems you thought were ancient history. While part of our job will always be looking backwards, too much dwelling on past decisions and disagreements can get in the way of productivity. It can also be really, really frustrating! Most of us have to deal with this from time to time, but if this personality type is prevalent at your company and indicative of your corporate culture, it may be time to move on.
Now I want to hear from you! Have you ever resigned a position, or considered doing so? What practical advice can you offer to peers reading this post? Thank you for reading, and I hope my perspective can help others navigate a difficult decision.