Auditors Know Everything, Right?!

One morning I got a call at my desk, from an employee in another department. I knew this person, but we didn’t interact often. This was someone in a mid-level operations job; not management, but experienced at the company.

“Hi Olivia, where do you keep a copy of our procedure manual?”

“I don’t.”

Silence on the other end, and then the zinger… “Then, what do you do?”

How do you even answer a question like that? And why is knowing everything the auditor’s responsibility?

The real issue here is an annoying assumption, and one that you have probably encountered as well. Auditors know everything, right?! Here are some examples.

Example 1

I’m having issues with a form I need to submit to Accounting. I don’t want to cause an issue when this is audited, can you help me fill it out?

The first question is peculiar, but not uncommon. The underlying sentiment is the desire to keep audit exceptions from happening down the road. A good thing, right? Maybe. They are expecting the auditor to know the detailed processes of a department, which isn’t appropriate or reasonable. They are also trying to get some assurance from the assurance provider. If a problem happens, it wasn’t because of me! How are you supposed to know, in passing, how an individual report you might pull into a sample six months from now is correct? You haven’t even started your preliminary work yet.

You can’t give everyone assurance all the time, and that’s okay!

Example 2

Last month you reported an exception found in your account testing. What actions are underway to fix this and keep it from happening again?

This one is another frequent but frustrating discussion auditors need to be ready to have. Just because I found an exception doesn’t mean I’m responsible for solving it. Every auditor should have a follow up process in place to identify and report the progress and eventual closure of audit exceptions. The Audit Library has an Audit Issue Tracking Report Template to use, if you aren’t doing this already. But keeping track of issues on a set schedule is a far cry from knowing moment to moment where all your auditees are in the process of clearing their issues.

You can’t know everyone’s business all the time, and that’s okay!

What’s Really Happening Here?

The role of Audit is widely misunderstood, in my experience.

Aren’t auditors the ones who make all the decisions? Nope, that would be management.

Don’t auditors hold managers accountable to the best interests of stakeholders? Nope, that would be the Board of Directors.

Can’t audit get people fired? Negative, unless other auditors need to be fired!

It’s a blessing and a curse. As an auditor, you are respected at your company. People ask you questions because they think you will know the answers. They think you’re smart, competent, and organized. This should feel like a compliment, but it can often feel like a burden. Particularly for introverts, or for parents who spend their “off” time answering endless questions from their children. A lot of the time, frustrations that play out at work come from dynamics from our childhoods, in our homes, our friendships, and other important relationships.

Also, being the fountain of information for everyone, everywhere, all the time can make you wonder… Why is that my responsibility?! In my more pessimistic moments, my brain goes to some unhelpful places when this type of encounter happens.

Don’t people carry computers around in their pocket now?! Look it up!

You don’t have a procedure manual? How have you made it this far in your job without one?!

How could I possibly run an audit department and know what each leader is doing at all times?!

Well, let me just stop the interior monologue pity party and interject some tough love. You’re the person at the company who is curious. You’re the person who knows how to research. You are paid to sit at a desk and think of ways to make the company better. You know everyone, what they do, and how good they are at doing it. You even know things you wish you didn’t know! You are the person most likely to have an answer to a basic question. You are the person most likely to have an answer to a completely random out of left field question. Hate to break it to you.

Learn How to Say “I Don’t Know”

So let’s use those earlier examples as a starting point to workshop some appropriate responses.

First, the Accounting form. “I’m sorry, but I need to punt on this and send you to Accounting directly. I appreciate that you want to do this correctly, but it’s really their responsibility to put the proper procedures and checks in place. If I pull your report into my sample at the end of the year, and there is an issue, I will be sure to research this further and make recommendations to Accounting. But for right now, I’m afraid it’s not appropriate for me to be involved.”

Second, the tracking and follow up question. “Well, we have a quarterly tracking process in place. I’ll be sure to ask the leader for an update at that time, but unless they come to me with a question or concern I don’t get involved in daily decisions and operations. So I’m afraid I don’t have an answer right now. I’ll make a note to flag that issue, and will be ready to discuss it in detail at next month’s meeting when the quarterly report has been completed.”

It is okay not to know something. Repeat that to yourself, dear reader. It is okay not to know something!

It’s okay not to know something, but in most cases, it’s not enough to say “I don’t know.” It’s not enough, because you are a professional. It’s not enough, because you’re the one people look to for knowledge. If you know your role, processes, resources, limitations and responsibilities, and are confident in your ability to make good decisions, you can competently answer almost any curveball question that comes your way. Show empathy for the questioner, clearly state your boundary, and explain what you can do to move this question to an answer or resolution.

This is so important! How you express the fact that you don’t know something can separate a career entry-level auditor from someone who is perceived as a leader and influencer at their company. When people see leadership qualities and the ability to influence, promotions follow.

Now, every bold statement like that last one comes with at least one modifier or caveat. Here is mine. Leadership and influence come as a result of real experience, knowledge and professionalism. Don’t kill yourself trying to be the person that people come to for everything. Don’t use your precious time learning the answers to questions that should be answered by someone else. Take it from me, it doesn’t work!

Set Appropriate Boundaries

Let’s use a final example. When I first went into Internal Audit, leaving a senior position at a good firm, I knew a lot more about a complex Accounting estimate than my new peers. I mistakenly tried to leverage this knowledge to gain respect and influence at work. Most of the people I was interacting with did not understand that this was not entirely appropriate. Audit scope is a concept that is not familiar to many people, and upon reflection, they probably didn’t realized how involved this was. I was young and didn’t truly understand myself. So I researched, read, memorized, examined the model over and over, and on and on.

What good did it do? Not much. I was not the person responsible for the estimate, I was just the person who looked at it closely each quarter. If someone had a question of why this decision vs. that decision was made, I couldn’t answer it. If a decision maker had a challenge to the model, it shouldn’t have involved me, but it did on more than one occasion. And over time, the company was so used to me looking at it, because that’s what we had always done, that correcting down the road was very difficult.

When I decided I had crossed a line and stepped back, it caused a lot of legitimate questions from those who had grown to rely on my analysis. If it was not appropriate, if I was acting as a control rather than an independent check, why had I spent so much time on it all these years? That crow didn’t taste great. And all because of my misguided belief that I had to be the subject matter expert on a difficult topic.

What’s wrong with being a subject matter expert? Nothing, as long as you are the expert in what you are being paid to do, which is work in an Internal Audit department. Become a subject matter expert in audit procedures, best practices, industry standards, proper governance, public speaking and presentation, or a panoply of other worthwhile topics that are relevant to your job.

It’s human nature to want to influence people and be respected. If you do your work, are curious, and engage with those around you, you will glean more information from your environment and experiences than you ever thought possible. Use all the knowledge you have, but in an appropriate way!

So now I want to hear from you! Have you experienced or overcome any of these frustrations? What is a time when you took on a knowledge responsibility that should not have been yours to carry, and how did you step back? What tips and tricks do you use in everyday interactions like the ones I have described? Leave a comment!

In the meantime, thank you so much for reading. I hope that this post rings true to other auditors, and helps put one aspect of your very important role into perspective.

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