The Seven Worst Words Internal Auditors Use
Let’s face it. Even here at Audit International, we understand Internal audit still suffers from some rather negative stereotypes. There are plenty of companies or units where internal auditors are not welcomed with open arms. Audit clients may view internal audit with suspicion, expecting a “gotcha” mentality or may feel like they are under surveillance.
Sure, it’s often undeserved and some of it comes with the territory, but we may even be perpetuating such negative views with the words we use. Words and phrases that internal auditors consider just a normal part of the profession’s vocabulary may actually be words that trigger negative reactions in our audit clients. And often, internal auditors don’t realize they are contributing to the hostility by using them.
Words matter and good internal auditors choose them carefully. But auditors are also as prone to using professional jargon as anyone. These are words that have become so commonplace that we might not think too much about what they really mean, especially to others. We all use them. Yet, how they might be interpreted may not be how we intended. So, what can we do about it?
Here are seven words that we should consider their meanings more closely and either use them more carefully or strike them from our vocabulary completely.
Most internal auditors call what we consider reportable (in writing and verbally) a “finding.” Think about that for a moment, though. It’s not as if the vast majority of our audit observations were hiding or lurking in some hard-to-discover, dark and foreboding place, and it took our best Indiana Jones skills to unearth them. Lo and behold, ah ha! We have a “finding.” The word relates a context of sleuthing and uncovering things that were hidden, perhaps intentionally.
So put yourself in the shoes of your audit clients. We come along and have all these “findings,” as if they weren’t doing their jobs and it took us to find these gems of reportable conditions. Worse yet, we are often reporting as “findings” what audit clients told us directly. How would you feel if someone walked through your house and told you at the end of their visit that they found the carpets needed vacuuming, the furniture needed to be dusted, and relayed a few other of their insufficient housekeeping “findings.” You’d likely be inclined to never invite them back.
Try using the words “observations,” “conclusions,” or “conditions,” rather than “findings.” You may find they work better in your organization. Audit clients will feel less like they are being accused of hiding information or that they didn’t see something that the auditors later uncovered.
When we observe an issue, we also sometimes couch that issue by using another troubling word, “weakness.” We may not be able to avoid calling breakdowns in internal controls, as they relate to SOX-like work, “control weaknesses” if the controls are not working as they should (or at all). But we should avoid calling observations outside of controls “weaknesses,” if possible.
Think about it. You go into the manager’s office during an audit, and you say, “excuse me, if you have a few minutes I’d like to go over a few weaknesses that have come to our attention during our review of your area.” Expect immediate defensiveness. We might as well be criticizing their first-born by pointing out weaknesses in how the child looks or plays with others. The word connotes physical ineptitude and can strike a visceral blow to any manager’s ego.
Like weaknesses, “deficiencies” isn’t any better for all the same reasons. So, perhaps, try “opportunities,” or “matters for attention,” rather than “weaknesses.” Even “challenges” or “difficulties” will garner a better response from audit clients.
While the term “material” has been part of auditing language forever and, although tough to really quantify, is an important and meaningful word. I mean, if it’s not material why look at it or consider it at all? We also have the SOX-related nomenclature of “material weaknesses” (which people want to avoid as best as possible). Look, if you tell someone something is “material” and it truly is agreed that it is “material,” that’s a big deal.
Yet when we tell someone who is the owner of something that we want to talk with them about a matter that is “material,” what would be the natural reaction of the person on the receiving end of that word? Disbelief, denial, and outright defensiveness are natural human reactions when told something is “material,” in a bad way, which affects them or their responsibilities. Think about being in the doctor’s office because you have not been feeling well. After a bit of consultation and tests, the doctor comes in the room and tells you that there is something “material” to discuss. You are likely to act with disbelief, denial, and defensiveness, naturally. The word conveys an urgency we might not intend. Do we really want our clients to react that way, now or in the future?
Note that “material” has an important legal context. The Securities and Exchange Commission defines “materiality” as anything a reasonable investor would deem relevant to their decisions about whether and how to invest. While it’s important to use this word carefully in this legal context, it’s also easy to adopt the word and use it outside this context, which can result in misusing it. Another problem with “material” is that it implies that everything else isn’t important or that other aspects of an audit client’s work are meaningless, which is not a great sentiment to convey.
So, perhaps, when you don’t really have to use the word “material” (or “significant” for that matter) in consultation or in writing, maybe consider some different language. Hey, there’s something important I want to run by you when you have a moment, and maybe we can write about the top matters for attention without calling them “material” (unless, of course, we must).
4. “Disclosed” or “Uncovered”
Like the word “finding,” the word “disclosed” (or the word “uncovered’) has a similar connotation. It’s as if the issue was hiding and no one knew about it or would ever find it without you, and your brilliance—the internal audit superhero with x-ray vision. OK, sometimes things were truly hidden, unintentionally or, worse yet, purposefully, and we did use our internal audit superpowers to uncover it and then we get to puff our chest and—cue music here—disclose it. But, come on, that’s rare.
Yet, we use the terminology all the time. For example, resulting from of our testing, it was disclosed that blah, blah, blah. Or, based on our review of the area, it was uncovered that yada, yada, yada. Now, if you’ve got sneaky and underhanded clients, who are going around hiding stuff from you that you truly uncovered and want to disclose to the world, then fine. But most clients don’t do that, and you want to collaborate with them in the future.
Imagine how you’d feel if the external team you hired to do your Quality Assurance Review (QAR) started telling everyone, verbally and in writing, what their work (and only their work) disclosed and uncovered in your internal audit department? How would you react to that? “Disclosed” implies that something was formerly a secret and now you are airing the dirty laundry out for the world to see.
So, maybe we need to back off the “disclosed” and “uncovered” language, at least a bit. Options might include, “along with management, we identified …,” “taking full stock of the evidence, it can be concluded that …,” “testing demonstrated that …,” or similar language. Just don’t use “revealed” instead. That’s just as bad.
5. “Entrance” and “Exit”
OK, you may need to bear with me a bit on this one.
We’re going to start an audit project, and our first meeting with the client is called, in many companies, an “entrance meeting.” Then, when we’ve concluded all our fieldwork, what do we call the last meeting with the client to wrap things up and ride off into the sunset to work on the audit report for weeks on end? The “exit meeting.” They are decent terms, descriptive of exactly what they are … our entrance (ugh, the auditors are here) and our exit (yes, they are leaving, let’s party).
Let me ask you this, though. Is this audit, the one you are doing an entrance into and an exit from, the first and last time you will ever see these folks? I sure hope you have an ongoing relationship and are interacting all year long, or at least on occasion. If that’s the case, there is no entrance and there is no exit because, like the song Hotel California, you may never leave. And, if you’ve done your relationship management right, they are happy about that.
The point is that “entrance” and “exit” are old-school terms from when we did things on a cyclical basis and may or may not come back. Back then, relationship-building was less important and audits had a fixed beginning and end. So, maybe we need to stop calling them “entrance meetings” and “exit meetings,” and just call them something else that isn’t so clinical and auditor sounding. Schedule your Project Introduction Meeting at the beginning and, maybe, your Project Wrap-Up Session at the end, or something like that. And, if you are well down the path of an agile implementation, all that entrance and exit stuff becomes moot anyway.
Back in 1999, the Institute of Internal Auditors introduced the well-accepted and globally codified definition of Internal Auditing as: “An independent, objective assurance and consulting [emphasis added] activity designed to add value…” Back then, the word “consulting” was viewed positively. And, for internal audit to be positioned to not only provide assurance, but to also be viewed as a consultant? Well, to borrow a ’90s term, that would be “da bomb!”
But, somewhere along the way, the word “consulting” came to be viewed less positively, and we’ve started to insert the word advising to soften the term. Should we blame consultants for tarnishing a good word, and making people view consultants and, in turn, consulting, negatively? Perhaps, but that’s not the point.
We all want to be advisors, and the gold standard, the place to be, the coolest accolade, would be to be trusted and be an advisor. So, in our pursuit of being that vaulted trusted advisor, let’s drop the word consulting from our vocabulary, once and for all. Look, your clients might want to “consult” with you, but hopefully you are “advising” them.
Often, we as auditors don’t want to overcommit, and use words that might get us into trouble later if something is determined to be different than our work concluded. There is just so much we can evaluate and then we must draw a conclusion and move on. So, we settle on words like “satisfactory,” even if things are notably better than the word implies. From an internal audit perspective, we are hedging out bets. We don’t want to be overly flowery with praise, and just conclude something is either “satisfactory,” “needs improvement,” or “unsatisfactory.”
Put yourself on the other side of the table. Let’s say, for instance, you’ve worked hard at something, gone the extra mile, and made sure it was done exceptionally well. Then, someone comes in, looks it over, and decides that things seem “satisfactory.” Ouch, gut punch! You put in a ton of effort, expected to get an “A” grade, and the professor gives you a “C.” That’s kind of deflating.
Let’s not forget that the word “satisfactory” means acceptable or good enough, but not outstanding or great. Yes, there are reasons to fall on the crutch of concluding, placing our highest auditor grade on something, that it is “satisfactory.” But, perhaps, if we can avoid it, we take the risk, rely on our work, and conclude that something better than a measly “satisfactory.” Don’t be afraid to say if something is exceptional, great, works well, or exceeds the requirement.
The Last Word
There is a lengthy list of good reasons, justifications, and rationalizations for why we use the words we do as internal auditors. Many of them have stood the test of time. Many are in use, and still exist, because we are hearing the world through our own ears, and not our clients’.
If we stop for a minute, and consider what these words sound like and what they actually mean, and the impressions they may leave on the ears of our clients who hear them, perhaps they are not the best words to use. Perceptions are reality, and if you want to change perceptions, maybe one way to do that is to change our vocabulary. In other words, say what you mean and mean what you say.
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