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Mind of Jacka: Seven Words, Plus Two

Blogs Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU Feb 02, 2023

A show of hands: Who here has ever heard George Carlin’s “The Seven Words You Can’t Say On TV”? I know, it is a bit of a dated reference. But it is an incredible piece that is the perfect example of Carlin’s inimitable ability to combine humor with observation, while skewering the powers that be.


Okay, maybe not the best introduction to this subject. But when I first read the title of Hal Garyn’s piece in Internal Audit 360°, “The Seven Worst Words Internal Auditors Use,” Carlin’s famous bit came to mind.

Of course, Hal is coming at this from a different (and very much cleaner) perspective — not prohibited words but words we should prohibit ourselves from saying. However, the idea of seven words resonated, and thus the introduction.

You should read this piece. There is a reason Hal was included on Richard Chambers’ recent list of top internal audit influencers on social media. And I cannot encourage you enough to follow Hal’s writings on LinkedIn, as well as the various pieces he contributes throughout the profession.

So, if you want the full list and associated dialogue, again, read this piece. However, I want to mention a couple of the choices I particularly liked.

First, “material.” I’ve always loved when someone (usually the external auditors) says something is not material. Nine times out of nine, I’d be more than willing to accept that “immaterial” amount as a bonus in my paycheck. It’s a word that gets thrown around without providing the necessary context.

Second, “consulting,” a word the profession took on a number of years ago to try and make kinder, gentler audit departments. I hadn’t really thought about what a worn-out warhorse this term is until Hal brought it up. I worked for a department where it had meaning, where its use brought a fresh perspective to our clients. But that was then and this is now. And I wonder if “consulting” has become nothing more than a cliché and buzzword that means nothing to anyone.

(What is a consultant? Someone you hire to tell you what time it is by reading your watch. An old joke. But we should probably be worried that our use of the word might bring this image to the minds of our clients.)

But I think Hal missed one, a word we use casually and constantly — a word so widespread that all meaning may have disappeared while still maintaining the ability to send chills up our clients’ backs. The word is “internal audit.” (And, yes, I know it’s a phrase, but give me a little leeway here.)

Much like consulting, I fear it is either a word that no longer has meaning or a word that has the power to make people want to run the other way. (There are exceptional departments for which this is an exception, but there is no hint that the exception is being passed as a possible proof of the rule.)

Let’s start with the basics. Are you sure you even know what “internal audit” means? The International Professional Practices Framework (IPPF) spends time trying to explain it, including the “Mission of Internal Audit,” the “Definition of Internal Auditing,” the “Core Principles for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing,” and even a definition of “internal audit activity” in the Glossary.

However, nowhere do we see a definition of the actual word “audit.” It is all implied, inferred, smoked, and mirrored. We have definitions for Assurance Services, Consulting Services, Control, Engagement, Fraud, and even the word “Must.” But nary a word about the word “audit,” the core of what we do.

You may think I’m making a finding out of a molehill, but let me give you this challenge. Go to any of your clients and ask them what an audit is, and I’ll bet you dollars to materiality that they come up with something that is far afield from what you think the phrase means (if they can come up with anything at all.) Then move on to the phrase “internal audit” and see what happens. In spite of all the ink spilled on the subject, their answers will probably still contain no reflection of what we perceive these words to mean. (In fact, for a good time, ask everyone in your department for definitions and watch as hilarity ensues.)

I wonder if we have overplayed our hand with something as simple and yet as complicated as our name. I’m not necessarily saying we should change our department name. (A number of years ago, Personnel Departments changed their names to Human Resources. My department got to talking, wondering if we should make a similar change. The discussion turned ludicrous and ground to a pleasantly necessary halt when someone suggested “Human Output Review” and someone else indicated it sounded like it was our job to review the restrooms.) But I have also heard departments come up with titles that, without using the “IA” word, still manage to express something that means internal audit to internal auditors, while still portraying to the clients that the department is a valuable member of the team. (And, if you are one of those who has solved this dilemma, please share.)

I know it is highly unlikely we will get rid of the phrase “internal audit.” In fact, I’m not convinced we should; this is meant to be nothing more than food for thought. But I know it was just as hard to quit using the word “auditee.” And I know it will be similarly hard to move away from the words Hal shared. It’s all a matter of understanding the power (or powerlessness) of the words we use and being very deliberate about the ones we choose.

Internal audit by any other name would smell… well, I’ll let you fill in that blank yourself.

And here’s an interesting follow-up I’ll leave with you. We talked about the words we should quit using. But, much like George Carlin’s routine, are there words internal auditors are not allowed to use — words that are verboten — that should be added to our vocabulary quiver?

Mike Jacka, CIA, CPA, CPCU, CLU

Co-founder and Chief Creative Pilot, Flying Pig Audit, Consulting, and Training Services (FPACTS), based in Phoenix.