Building a Better Auditor: Empathy in Audit
Blogs Meghan Boyd, CIA, CISA Feb 12, 2024
I wasn't a member of the debate club and, in hindsight, I realize it would have been a good fit for me. I always enjoyed exploring concepts by taking the opposing side in philosophical discussions. This practice, especially during my formative years, has significantly contributed to my ability to empathize with those I’ve audited. Empathy and consideration are superpowers that amplify the effectiveness of internal auditors by fostering trust and cooperation. This is particularly crucial in the new world of "permacrises" — with global events such as pandemics and wars compounding already challenging personal situations faced by audit clients.
People we audit are deeply immersed in full-time work when we suddenly step into their world. Internal auditors arrive at the client's doorstep with additional questions, requests, and feedback that are not part of their normal schedule or activities. This can be perceived as overly intrusive or disruptive to their daily work. A staff auditor working for me once created a loud commotion in our tax department, urgently seeking audit evidence when the business owner had priority deliverables that day. Colleagues nearby messaged me, informing me of the disturbance. I was grateful for the heads-up because it allowed me to apologize to the client and coach the auditor to be more considerate in the future.
I previously worked with an audit client responsible for controls related to the U.S. Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, who consistently had strong reactions to identified Sarbanes-Oxley issues. This control owner once told me they felt like I had given them an "F" on a paper. To handle the situation, I took careful steps, ensuring beginner auditors did not deliver their observations to this owner. Instead, I would personally approach them once I fully understood what we found. I would listen calmly and supportively through the cycle of anger, frustration, and embarrassment that would surface. Once the owner expressed their feelings, we could always have a productive discussion about the next step and document the action plan. Before understanding the best way to interact with this owner, issues delivered to them would always create a firestorm of emails and a mess to clean up. A bit of empathy and understanding went a long way in nurturing this relationship and working toward positive change together.
Approaching our questions and observations with the expectation that the audit client knows more than us is very helpful. Often, they do! Auditors are trying to jump in and add value to their processes very quickly and may not understand the complexities or nuances. Rather than announcing observations outright, we should approach the owner in question form, asking, “Am I understanding this correctly?”
Here are some additional steps you can take to develop your empathy skills:
- Practice active listening — do not focus on planning your response while the other person is speaking.
- Imagine yourself from their perspective and think about what you would feel or think.
- Pay attention to tone of voice, body language, and facial expressions of others and yourself.
- Reflect on your own experiences when you’ve received negative feedback or have been interrupted when working on something.
- Ask for feedback from mentors that you perceive as being skilled at empathetic responses.
- Practice empathetic language such as, “That must be really challenging for you.”
My favorite communication advice is this: Put your communication objective first. We want to uncover true risks and, if found, we want the client to work on a solution that addresses the root cause. To achieve this, we need them to share the fullest picture and arrive at the same conclusion that we did. If a client becomes upset, our response shouldn’t be to nurse the hurt — we should choose grace. People may not remember our words, but they will undoubtedly remember how we made them feel.