by John E. Gray
During the course of an audit, you will undoubtedly have to interview employees. Whether you’re a first-, second-, or third-party auditor, interviews help in the verification of output to specifications as well as validating outcomes with customer expectations. Therefore, the audit interview is an important and widely used form of data collection. However, the audit interview is also a very unique form of data collection because it involves person-to-person interaction. This interaction usually takes the form of the auditor (the interviewer) questioning an employee (interviewee) to gain insight in assessing compliance and/or effectiveness to a standard. This interaction requires time and effort, thus making it a much more intrusive form of data collection. The audit interview is a formal form of communication enlisting the basic tenets of a sender, receiver, and a continuous loop of verbal and nonverbal feedback. It’s a very dynamic process that if not managed and executed well can lead to some serious problems.
I’ve been an audit program manager for more than 15 years, and I’ve seen many an audit interview. The one thing I’ve learned during the years is that the interviewer and the interviewee can make or break an audit. I’ve categorized and provided an example of these experiences as The Not-So-Good, The Really Bad, and The Downright Ugly. The following experiences involve the interviewer:
- The Not-So-Good. An auditor attempted to interview an employee concerning a critical air vehicle launch and recovery process. The employee quickly became frustrated as the questioning seemed to jump all over the place. The auditor became nervous and essentially ended the audit interview without the information needed to assure compliance. The auditor was unaware of the steps in a critical process.
- The Really Bad. I once performed a follow-up survey on an audit with a supplier and discovered that when our auditor showed up at a supplier’s facility he was greeted by the site manager with a fishing pole and a bottle of whiskey. When I inquired what this was for the site manager stated that when that an auditor comes to audit we give him those things because he doesn’t ask that many questions compared to when we don’t give him something. A true lack of integrity.
- The Downright Ugly. Unfortunately, I’ve received more than one phone call from upset suppliers. One such phone call sticks out in my memory. The complaint with our auditor was his method used to question their employees. The auditor cornered several employees and used leading questions to try to get them to admit to fraud, waste, and abuse. The auditor essentially interrogated them.
Interview outcomes are not determined solely by auditors. The clients’ personnel play an important role in the interview process. I’m sure this revelation comes as no surprise to auditors; some auditees resent audits and aren’t forthcoming during an audit interview. However, the interviewer has much more control over his or her performance than that of the client. Therefore, the remainder of this article will focus on the auditor’s role during an audit interview.
Auditors need to be open-minded, flexible, good at conflict management, and exercise sound time management techniques. They also need to balance patience with persistence—especially when the client is paying $1,200–$2,000 a day for an audit that requires time-consuming data collection. Most important, auditors need to know and understand the audit interview process, which starts at the audit preparation and planning phase.
In preparing for an audit’s data collection stages, identify the type of interview you will need and make sure you set aside enough time to perform it. Be sure to include extra time for the possibility that you’ll need to gather corroborating evidence. There are different forms of interviewing. Some of the most common are unstructured, structured, and informal.
- The unstructured or in-depth audit interview uses open-ended questions to understand the interviewee’s work process and/or a particular situation. The data that come from this type of interview are mostly qualitative.
- The structured or guided audit interview uses a checklist to make sure all relevant issues are covered. This is the most common form of audit interview as it improves time management while allowing the interviewer to probe deeper if necessary.
- The informal audit interview, also known as the conversational interview, is just as its title implies—a simple conversation between interviewer and interviewee. The interviewer moves the conversation based on the replies given.
The next step in the preparation phase is to communicate your audit plan with the auditee (what, where, when, who, how, and why) and arrange the required logistics for the audit. This includes verifying the audit interview plan. The auditor should gain as much knowledge as possible about what he or she will audit prior to starting the audit. If possible, flowchart the process before you arrive using the auditee’s documents and practices. Be familiar with the company. Knowing its mission, vision statement, and organizational structure goes a long way in establishing rapport and building trust.
Establishing rapport can be achieved several ways. Always remain professional by being polite and respectful but not overly apologetic. While asking questions use a friendly tone. Use expressions and gestures to help convey meaning.
Respect the interviewee’s opinions, show empathy toward his or her feelings, and be attentive by acknowledging his or her responses. Don’t interrupt. Allow the auditee to reply in his or her own way. Be observant; know when to cut the conversation and move on and always be sincere. Otherwise, the interviewee will negate your efforts. If you take notes, inform the interviewee and offer to show him or her your notes when you’re done. Showing interviewees what you have noted in the audit interview and what will go in the audit report builds trust. Use a friendly tone when asking questions and appropriate expressions and gestures to help convey meaning.
Before an audit interview, auditors need to be cognizant of the questioning techniques available that will greatly facilitate effective data collection. The audit interview involves verbal and nonverbal interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee. These should be controlled using specific questioning techniques. Doing so helps foster the interviewee’s ability to communicate his or her thoughts, thus improving the quality of data received. Good questioning techniques involve:
- Sequence the questions depending on the type of audit. Start by asking broad, general questions and gradually make them more focused. This helps prime the interviewee’s mind and reduces confusion. Having a checklist helps the interviewer maintain control of the conversation so he or she can meet data collection objectives.
- Ask one question at a time. Too often I’ve seen auditors ask too many questions at once, leaving the interviewee confused as to which one to answer first.
- Ask clear questions. Interviewers should use language and words that the interviewee understands. All questions should be easy to convey and understand, short, and free from slang or other confusing jargon (such as military acronyms). For example, I’ve seen auditors use acronyms from other clients when interviewing which causes confusion and misunderstanding.
- Avoid questions and topics that may be sensitive to the interviewer, especially if audit is for a politically or religiously sensitive client.
- If using the in-depth audit interview process or any open-ended question, make sure they’re really open-ended. Using open-ended questions helps gain insight into what the interviewee understands or feels about a specific issue. For example, the interviewer may ask, “What do you think about the effectiveness of this process?” Or, “What do you feel about the organization’s performance feedback program?”
Another good practice is to ask experience-type questions first before you ask for opinions or feeling-type questions. This is especially true when you’re auditing a process that has failed. Getting the facts (experience) answered first helps prepare the interviewee to express his or her opinion/feeling as to why it failed later on in the audit interview.
To gain deeper understanding and improve the quality of your data, use the probing technique. Probing is the follow up to a response by asking for more clarification. For example, “Can you explain that further? Can you provide another detailed example of that happening?” Paraphrase for understanding when needed. To avoid misinterpretations, clarify the interviewee’s statements with him or her. For example, the interviewer may say, “Do I understand the process works this way…? Is it correct for me to say you feel this way…?”
Once the audit begins and you begin the audit interview, be respectful of the fact that the process is intrusive. Try to be as minimally disruptive as possible. Explain to the interviewee why you’re there and try to put him or her at ease. Do your best to inform the interviewee that you’re collecting information about the process and not about him or her. The best thing you can do at this point is to maintain rapport and build trust throughout the audit interview.
During the audit interview, an auditor may come across information that may need to be verified for accuracy. This information can be corroborated by hearing the same response from another individual or through another auditor. It can also be found in a process or product attribute such as a product, record, or document. Good interviewers understand the process of verification and validation to give credibility to their findings.
Auditors who pursue and maintain their interviewing skills sets can avoid common errors such as steering auditees toward certain conclusions by using leading questions or answering for the interviewee instead of waiting for his or her response. They can also identify and eliminate the potential for bias to negatively affect results. Good interviewers understand there are limitations to any interview.
The audit interview has its limitations as a data collection tool. Because much of the data gained from an audit interview is qualitative (as is the case when using open-ended questions), it can be difficult to analyze. Interviewing takes a significant amount of time, so if the auditor has to conduct an audit interview with several people each day, he or she can become exhausted. That fatigue can lead to bias. Auditors who know their clients well and have a personal friendship can also introduce bias into the audit interview results. To prevent such errors the key is to become better educated and prepared.
Auditors who plan their interviews, use their relationship-building skills, and constantly pursue improvement in their performance of interviews do very well. They are less disruptive, focus on the process, and come away with quantifiable and qualitative data they can use to assess process effectiveness.
About the author
John E. Gray is an organizational strategic planner, audit program manager, certified quality auditor, certified plexus/coach trainer, and lean facilitator with the U.S. Air Force Acquisition Management and Integration Center. He has more than 15 years’ experience in auditing service suppliers for the Air Combat Command.