Auditors and Work Relationships: What to Do When You Love (or Hate) Your Auditees

We are officially in the holiday season! A time to reflect on all the good things in our lives, despite this being a particularly difficult year. Among many blessings, I’m thankful for all the lovely friends I’ve made at work over the course of my career. There is something really special about the bonds that can form between co-workers; a familiarity that comes naturally. When people experience the same circumstances and environment, they often have an ease around one another, and an understanding that can be expressed without words.

I consider myself a friendly, compassionate, and outgoing person. With a few notable exceptions, making friends at work has been easy for me. But as with all things in life, not everything comes up roses. I’ve had some real misses in the “getting along for the sake of the team” department! Some of this is just the result of being a human. Not all of us can see eye to eye, no matter how hard we try. Sometimes, it is an issue of role power. Being the auditor brings a strange dynamic into workplace relationships. 

Auditors must be aware of the pros and cons of having friends (or enemies) in the workplace. It is sometimes difficult to be  an auditor and a person at the same time. But what are the benefits and risks of forming friendships in the office? How can auditors handle animosity and bad relationships at work? What warning signs should we be aware of, in order to avoid letting our personal feelings about others affect our work? Can we be independent and objective about our friends, or our enemies?

Work Besties: The Pros and Cons

Have you ever had a really good friend, or even a best friend, in your office? I have! I’m sure my office neighbors remember one lunch buddy in particular, who worked outside of our audit department. We very often stepped out of the office for lunch or coffee, talked about work, life, kids, other relationships, and just about everything else. The pros are easy to spot. A work bestie can enrich your life, and probably add years to it!

But every relationship you form poses some sort of risk. In normal circumstances, the risk of a friendship falling apart is your personal feelings and heartbreak. When you are an Internal Auditor, the risks are tangible. A break up could affect your career and company negatively, so proceed with great caution.

The first risk to consider is how this relationship looks to others. To an outsider, they may see favoritism whether or not it is there. Ask yourself the following questions about your work friends:

  • Do my friends get special treatment when they are subject to my audit procedures? 
  • Would  I go easy on them, or even delay their audits as a personal favor? 
  • When interviewing friends for audit purposes, do I rely on their statements without looking for supporting evidence, because I trust them?

I hope the answer to these questions is a definitive and resounding “NO!” Your friends must be treated exactly the way you would treat anyone in their position. 

The underlying issue here is a slippery one: auditor independence and objectivity. You may remember from auditing class, or from taking the CPA or CIA exams, that there are two types of auditor independence. The first, “independence in fact,” is a state of mind. You are either independent, or you are not. This cannot be observed by others and is known only to you. The second is “independence in appearance;” how your actions and circumstances show others whether or not you are independent. This is a very serious matter for external auditors, who are legally banned from owning stock in the companies they audit, among other requirements.

Can we Internal Auditors be independent and objective when it comes to our friends? I believe we can.

Who Do You Trust the Most?

To demonstrate my theory, I want you to complete an exercise with me. Think of a non-auditor you have worked with, and are friends with, who you find extremely honest, trustworthy, ethical, and even righteous. One of my best friends, who is someone I met at work, meets all of these criteria for me. I’ve joked before; if it turns out they were ever stealing, embezzling, or involved in any other unscrupulous behavior, I would probably just retire from auditing! Hang up the badge, because I can’t read people and should leave this work to the people who can. Everyone has someone like this in their life.

Now imagine that the unthinkable happens. That person, who you trust and respect, has been caught participating in a fraud. Would you turn them in?

For me, the answer is a very sad yes. It would be heartbreaking and gut-wrenching, but I would do it. That is what independence and objectivity is all about. Seeing reality when things don’t turn out the way we thought they would. Doing the right thing regardless of the relationship or personal consequences to you.

Lower Stakes Relationship Issues

I used fraud as a scary but realistic example. There is a whole spectrum of circumstances you may be faced with regarding your professional relationships and position as an Internal Auditor. A work friend could lose their job because they made an error, lack needed skills in a changing role, or they may simply be the victim of budget cuts. As the auditor, you often know about these types of situations before they go down. Can you keep your knowledge confidential, even though it will affect someone you care about? Your loyalty is to your company and your profession, so you must keep that distance.

You could even uncover a low-level error made by a friend. Something that they did wrong, intentionally or otherwise, that needs to be reported. I’ll say it again; treat them as you would any other audit subject!

Not everyone is capable of keeping the work separate from the relationship. If you are unable to maintain the professionalism required of you at all times, do not form these friendships!

Work Enemies are Extremely Dangerous!

Be honest, do you have a work enemy? Have you ever had one? Okay, enemy may be a strong word, but I’ve definitely worked with my share of people I don’t care for. 

It’s a two-way street, and the feelings were probably mutual. For now, it will have to suffice to say that, for whatever reason, you will not get along with everyone around you in the workplace. If you take one piece of advice from this post, let it be this: Do not let your personal feelings about someone, positive or negative, affect your work! Treat the auditee you despise the most the same way you would your most esteemed colleague.

I worked in a department where my leader had a really tumultuous relationship with an executive outside of our group. In my opinion, this was one of those relationships where both parties were at fault, and someone from the top should have intervened. When we approached anyone in that group, our requests were either mocked or met with aggression. Our audit reports were ignored all together. The auditors in our group were directed to be suspicious of that team right out of the gate when we would initiate audits or pass on requests from outside parties. We were given one set of rules for their group, one set of rules for everyone else.

Maybe it goes without saying, but this is not the proper way to operate any professional department, least of all an Internal Audit activity! For all the energy we spend on making sure all is right with our independence and objectivity when it comes to our friends, we should be just as concerned about our actions regarding our enemies. 

A Lesson from Shakespeare

To explain this concept, I want to venture outside the world of Internal Audit. I was a theatre student for many years in high school and college, and one of the basic lessons taught to actors is empathy. Casual observers may think it is easier to play a likable or beloved character than a horrible one, but this is simply not the case. Konstantin Stanislavsky, the father of method acting, taught his students to treat each character with the same level of empathy. Whether you are playing beloved Pan from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the universally despised Lady MacBeth, a true actor would give both roles the same amount of care, and try to understand their motivations equally.

This is a really difficult idea for most people! We really want the world to make sense, and sometimes it doesn’t. Good people do bad things, bad people can be heroes, and often our opinions about people are proven wrong! Actors and auditors are both motivated by the truth. For actors, the truth is an accurate and complex portrayal of a character that will look real to their audience. For auditors, the truth is the reality uncovered by our investigations, inquiries, and evidence. If your motivation is the truth, it shouldn’t matter whether the subject of your investigation is your best friend, worst enemy, frenemy, a fair-weather friend, a former foe turned ally, or anything in between!

Beware of “Meh”

There has been a lot of drama in this post so far. A much more common situation is when there is no love, hate, or bias involved. Someone just doesn’t like you, or you don’t like them, and you don’t know why. It would be nice to blame it on a circumstance or event, but it just is what it is. This is a situation that has happened, or will happen, to everyone. And sooner or later it will have an impact on your audit work if you aren’t careful.

When you don’t like someone, you may be inclined to avoid them when setting up interviews or observations. This puts an unfair burden on all the people who then pick up the slack. Ask yourself if you’re putting too much responsibility on those work friends we mentioned earlier. When someone doesn’t like you, it may be really easy for them to blow off your requests. Don’t let them! This is one instance where your role power is appropriate. You are authorized to have certain information and access, and shouldn’t let people avoid you for petty or personal reasons.

I assure you, I have made the mistake of avoiding, blaming, or assuming the worst of someone based on my personal feelings rather than the facts of the case. If you are guilty of this, please don’t beat yourself up. Take what I have said in the spirit of helpfulness with which it was intended, and try to do better going forward.

Conclusion

I hope this post has been helpful to you. Auditors should be prepared for every possible type of relationship, the ways it can affect their work, and how those relationships are perceived by others. Have you ever experienced a workplace friendship that helped, or hindered, your audit work? Leave a comment and tell us about it!

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