by Larry Whittington
Audit interviews are one of four ways to gather information during an audit, the others being to review documents, observe operations, and examine records. Efficient and effective interviews are the key to a successful audit.
Some auditors are outgoing and gregarious. They enjoy talking to people and having them demonstrate and explain their activities. Others may be more reserved and possibly concerned about confrontations, so they would prefer to just review documents and examine records. However, you need a balanced audit approach, which includes gathering information through interviews, observations, documents, and records.
Interviews are extremely important because they help you look beyond the documented process. Interviews with the process manager and the people performing the work may uncover the “actual” process. This process could be dramatically different than the documented version.
There will be processes that aren’t documented. In this case, the only way to determine the process requirements is to interview the process owner. Everyone has responsibilities beyond those written down in a procedure or instruction. The only way to uncover those duties during an audit is through interviews.
Interviews also give auditors an opportunity to see how well people are being made aware of their responsibilities and a sense of their process understanding and level of commitment.
During our interviews, we want people to perceive auditors as being thorough but fair. We should be assessing for conformity, not nonconformity. Our value as auditors is not tied to how many nonconformities we find. It’s not a competition. If you think your job is to find nonconformities, then you’ll approach the audit in a negative manner. Assess for conformity and along the way you may find some nonconformities. Be sure to also point out the area’s strengths, not just its weaknesses.
Part of being fair during an audit is to take representative samples, which includes the selection of the people to be interviewed. Involve a good cross-section of the jobs in the area, and pick your own sample to interview. Don’t be steered to the same experienced people every audit.
If, after you complete your sample, the allotted time has expired, don’t keep auditing just because you haven’t discovered a nonconformity. Instead, thank the auditee for his or her time and say that based upon your sample, no nonconformities were found. However, remind the auditee that finding no nonconformities doesn’t mean there are no nonconformities in his or her area, since it was a limited sample during a brief period of time.
You should interview people at their workplace, not yours. You need to be where they feel comfortable and have access to their job information. They need to be in their area to show you how they perform their tasks. Schedule the interviews to be conducted during their normal work hours to be considerate, to avoid possible overtime, and to be there while the work is being performed.
If you’ve ever been interviewed during an audit, you probably realize that the person being interviewed might be a little nervous about the audit… or very nervous about it. It’s important to put the interviewee at ease and lower his or her anxiety level. You don’t have to immediately jump into your questions. If you sense nervousness, spend a few moments talking about non-audit topics to relax them. Chat about the weather, kids, pets, or sports.
Explain to the person being interviewed why you are there and that you need his or her help to understand the process. Ask questions about the auditee’s job. Have him or her demonstrate how it is done. But remember, the auditee may not be used to explaining the job while doing it, so be patient and understanding. You could even suggest that auditees follow their instruction manual (it is an open book audit).
You will usually interview more than one person in an area. If you get different answers, verify the responses. Check on the manager’s understanding of the process. See what the documents say on the subject. Maybe the different methods are acceptable and not in conflict.
When you think an activity may be nonconforming, make only a tentative conclusion. Share your concern. No secrets. This will allow you to confirm it really is a nonconformity, or find out it was just a misunderstanding on your part. Better to discover your mistake at that point than later.
At the end of the interview, summarize the results. Remind the auditee of any nonconformities that were found and discussed. Hopefully, you can say that the area was found to be conforming, or mostly conforming, based on your audit sample. Then, give the auditee a chance to discuss any other topics on his or her mind. See if they’re responsible for any areas that weren’t addressed during the interview. Maybe you missed an important process.
Remember that an interview is not an interrogation. Treat the auditee like you’d like to be treated if the roles were reversed.
Ask for proof
When I teach an onsite internal auditor class and follow it with a practice audit, we have a debriefing afterward to get student feedback. They usually share that they failed to take sufficient notes and they failed to ask for evidence. They usually explain that that they didn’t take enough notes because they got so involved in the audit and somehow felt it was only important to take notes if they suspected a nonconforming situation. Remember that auditors also need to take notes for the conforming areas to record samples and to use for reference later in the audit.
The students’ failure to ask for proof of conformity is due to being too gullible based on logical and confident responses. They didn’t want to appear untrusting. However, you must ask the “show me” questions. Remember: “Investigate a claim; accept an admission.” If someone claims his or her activity is performed in a conforming way, politely ask for the proof. If a responsible person admits that a required activity was not done, then you can accept that admission of nonconformity.
When you ask a question, actively listen. Don’t be thinking about your next question. Thoughtfully consider your interviewee’s answer. Rely primarily on open questions (who, what, when, where, why, and how) for expanded responses. Avoid closed questions except to confirm answers.
You may want to ask for explanations and examples to better understand a process. Rephrase your questions to gain clarification and keep neutral on the subject. Don’t take sides. We are fact finding, not fault finding.
It’s OK to ask “suppose” or “what if” questions. The main path of the process may work fine, but the parts that deal with exceptions or deviations may not work as well. However, remember that you can’t expect that every situation has been covered in training and documents. It would be acceptable if the person being interviewed says, “I would go to my supervisor in that situation.”
Some auditors worry about being able to ask knowledgeable questions. Remember that even a simple question, trying to learn more about a process, may expose a basic flaw. Don’t be afraid to ask a blunt question about known problems or to ask for the auditee’s opinion of the quality being produced by the process. Although we can’t write a nonconformity based on an opinion, we can ask further questions to uncover facts that may support it.
What if the interviewee only gives you a short snippet of an answer? You may wonder if he or she has been coached not to volunteer anything. Try just being quiet and waiting for more of an answer. To some people, silence is not golden. They may fill that quiet time with an expanded answer.
A key part of interviews is taking brief notes on what has been seen and heard during an audit. Before you start writing, explain why you are taking notes. Otherwise, interviewees may think you are “writing them up” when you make notes.
It’s important to record specific details in your notes. Identify revision levels, serial numbers, and work areas. You’ll need this information to define your audit sample, and you may need it for writing a nonconformity report.
When can a statement be used as evidence? If the management representative says, “We did not hold any management reviews last year,” there is no need to look for meeting minutes; they don’t exist. The nonconformity report can use the management representative’s statement as evidence the reviews were not held as required.
Because you may be interviewing multiple people about an activity, be aware of their different answers for the same question. Follow up to get at the real facts. Your interviews may also identify additional activities for review that were not part of your original audit sampling plan.
As a courtesy, talk first to the manager of the area before talking to employees in the area. Seek the manager’s permission to interview the people. The manager will know their assignments and their availability. Don’t forget to include temporary and part-time employees in your sample.
Make sure you clearly understand the responses to avoid any errors in making your conclusions. Don’t get sidetracked on minor concerns and miss auditing important areas. Make good use of your time. If you request that some data be retrieved, continue the audit until the data become available. Watch your manners. Be polite and considerate at all times.
A big part of being an auditor is being able to effectively communicate. We talk to people, actively listen, and write reports. We have to clearly express ourselves and with practice, we get better.
People also communicate indirectly through their body language. Be aware of puzzled looks or defensive postures. Be also aware of your own body language. You may say the right things to appear neutral but give away your feelings through a shoulder shrug or eye roll.
You also need to be careful how you speak. It may not be what you say, but how you say it. The inflection and tone can make a world of difference. For example, “Bob, what are you doing?” vs. “BOB, WHAT ARE YOU DOING!”
Auditors should use a combination of these communication skills to ensure verbal messages are being translated properly in both directions.
The reactions of interviewed people may range from full cooperation to rare cases of outright hostility. Negative responses may be due to negative management attitudes and the way the audit was announced. Attitudes are contagious.
It could also be due to a lack of audit experience and the fear of the unknown. The word “audit” does have a negative connotation. If people believe audits make people look bad, trigger punitive actions, and cause extra work, they may try to delay your appointed audit rounds to reduce your sample size and reported problems.
However, be careful making these assumptions. You may misinterpret innocent behavior as a deliberate scheme to interfere with your audit. Remember auditees have the right to challenge or appeal your findings. Be open-minded. You may be wrong.
When asked to demonstrate an activity, people may spend what appears to be extra time showing off their system. The dog-and-pony show could be to steal time from the audit, but it could also be that the auditee is unsure of the level of detail needed or simply proud of his or her work. Sometimes a person will explain the procedures well beyond what was required to answer your question. Maybe the auditee is conducting a filibuster on the audit floor or maybe he or she is nervous and doesn’t know when to stop.
If you ask to see a hard copy record, the person may disappear to retrieve it and leave you waiting. Continue auditing in his or her absence. You could also go along to observe the organization’s records management and pick your own sample.
The auditee may want to argue the practical significance of your finding. In other words, try to talk you out of reporting it. Some people may attempt to influence the audit results through their friendship with you or by their flattery of your work. This is a more subtle form of a bribe. In some situations, they may try to explain away the nonconformity as a special case, “Never seen it before; doubt it will ever happen again. Let’s move on. What is your next question?”
Another tactic to ensure better audit results is to pre-select a sample of conforming records to examine or experienced people to interview. You may accept some of their sample to learn the process but then ask to select your own sample to complete the assessment.
You might encounter someone who claims to know more about the system and the standard than you. This person may challenge your knowledge and try to convince you there is no problem. “Trust me, this is not a nonconformity,” he or she might say. It’s important to be open-minded and listen to the person’s argument. However, trust yourself, your training, and your experience when making decisions about nonconformities.
In rare cases, the auditee may try to provoke an argument to disrupt the interview and get you off your game. Stay calm. You are the adult here. If the auditee doesn’t cooperate, talk to someone else.Regardless of the tactic, stay focused on the audit objective. Be patient but firm in handling a difficult situation. Notify the area manager or the audit program manager if you need help to resolve an issue.
Conducting efficient and effective audit interviews will help your organization verify conformity, evaluate effectiveness, and identify opportunities for improvement. Audits monitor the management system and its processes and provide feedback for management review and action. A side benefit is increased employee awareness and focus on process quality. Audit interviews have a positive residual effect.
When audits uncover product or process problems that are acted upon they reduce the risk of quality, environmental, health, and safety issues. Conducting efficient and effective audit interviews is extremely important for a successful audit.
About the author
Larry Whittington is president of Whittington & Associates, a training, consulting, and auditing company founded in 1993 and located in Canton, Georgia. He is an Exemplar Global and IRCA-certified Lead QMS Auditor, as well as an ASQ Certified Quality Auditor and Software Quality Engineer. Larry has developed requirements, implementation, documentation, and auditing courses used by multiple training firms, and has taught hundreds of classes to thousands of students. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.