The following article is part of our blog series "The Future of Audit"

What is the reason for an in-depth confrontation with this topic you might ask?

We at zapliance are a team of auditors, scientists and developers and we have noticed over the past few years, that the general conditions of auditing are changing in an incredibly fast pace.

As a result, the steadily increasing amount of available data means that a holistic and valid view of the risk/opportunity perspective is becoming increasingly difficult without the support of partners within the organization.

In other words, this forces the auditor to reevaluate his own strengths and weaknesses, as the cooperation with partners requires personal competencies, that auditors until now did not have to rely on (You can find our main article, that discusses the aforementioned points in more detail here).

Our blog series about individual competencies supports auditors to reconsider and reflect their normal practices, to become even more successful in the future.

Have a go and try it out!

My name is Alexander Rühle and I have been a passionate auditor since 2006 and have been the CEO at zapliance for 5 years by now.

In the following article I would like to discuss the topic that affects all of us auditors – Working closely with the colleagues from other specialist departments.

More specifically I mean: How should we auditors build relationships with colleagues within the organization, in order to do our work, the best possible way we can?

 

Let me give you an example:

A few years ago, I had a colleague in Internal Audit with whom I am still a friend today.

A great guy, always friendly to everyone.

One who even delivers important documents to his colleague right to your doorstep, even if it is after work.

And because of those things, there was always a spot reserved for him in the canteen.

What seems unusual about this colleague: he managed to have easy-going, friendly relationships with not just the internal auditors, but also colleagues from other departments – In a nutshell he was simply liked by everyone.

To speak quite frankly, I must admit that I sometimes envied him and his ability to build and maintain good relationships with everyone.

Because the truth is, us auditors are not typically perceived with the image of “everybody’s darling”.

On the contrary: we auditors are often not particularly popular within the company.

We are often even told we stand in the way of our colleagues from specialist departments focusing on their work.

Others even accuse us from not contributing much to the business, from an operational point of view.

All in all, we are therefore seen as not very advantageous.

 

But let us go back to the example: The good relationship between the auditor I mentioned, and his colleagues also proved to be a shortcoming.

One day, the following incident occurred: During a pub crawl with several colleagues (also including parts of the management), the auditor mentioned was asked by the CFO of the company to check the travel expense report of another colleague – “purely a routine procedure” of course.

Carried away by the cheerful mood of the evening and the friendly relationship with the CFO, the auditor agreed without much thinking.

However, the audit did reveal several inconsistencies - as a result, the employee in question even had to leave the company.

That was also the moment when a discussion broke out among the auditors: according to rumors, the management had wanted to get rid of the employee who had been audited.

He had been disliked for a long time and the management only had looked for reasons to let him go.

The auditor in question had obviously allowed the CFO to manipulate him and as a result this violated an important principle of internal auditing, namely objectivity.

In short, in his guilelessness he had allowed himself to be turned into management’s tool and its personnel policy.

A mistake that never let go of the auditor and ultimately led to him changing his employer two years later.

 

I think that this example describes the auditor’s dilemma quite perfectly:

if the relationship with colleagues from the specialist departments and the senior management is too friendly, we run the risk of making mistakes.

However, if the relationship is too distant and cool, the working atmosphere with those same colleagues is less personal and for us less satisfying.

In addition, a distanced relationship with the specialist departments makes cooperation, on which we will increasingly depend in the future (see our main article), more difficult.

The Institute of Internal Auditors (IIA) agrees that the auditor mentioned in my example has acted incorrectly, as international standards state that internal auditors:

 

“shall not engage in any activity or maintain any relationship that might influence their impartial judgment, even appearance to the contrary shall be avoided. This includes activities or relationships that may conflict with the interests of the organization”. (IIA, 2017)

 

But how should we best behave towards our colleagues from the specialist departments?

A general rule of thumb is of course, friendships or even romantic relationships with colleagues from specialist departments should be avoided at all times as far as possible.

Take precaution here to not get entangled into any closer relationships with the department heads or any other employee from specialist departments, especially if its departments internal auditors work directly on a regular basis with.

However, especially if you work in a small company, this might not be so easy.

In larger companies this particular situation is often more relaxed, as you as an internal auditor might not be working closely with other departments, and might not even be in contact to some specialist departments, such as the marketing department – because those departments could easily be more than 20 employees.

 

Of course, just because you as the auditor should not have any close friendships or relationships with employees from specialist departments, does not mean, however, that they should be strictly avoided.

In my personal experience, every auditor should find his balance between the two extremes.

But as is so often the case, it is not so easy to find the right balance.

Fortunately, there are a few points the auditor can orientate oneself by.

 

To maintain the necessary distance from colleagues in the specialist departments, you should, for example, try to keep private and professional matters apart as much as possible.

Try to limit conversations about private topics at work but stick to the generally accepted small talk topics.

Meaning for example, avoid mentioning your son’s first day at school or a falling out with your mother-in-law and instead move on to general conversations about the weather, misleading signs in the company car park or the time-consuming renovation work on the 6th floor.

You will see switching from personal issues is very well-perceived, understood and accepted by the majority of people.

This way, you don’t run the risk of your counterpart seeing your small talk as an offer for a deeper relationship and any unpleasant misunderstandings.

 

At the same time, avoiding personal issues does not mean that you are perceived as unfriendly.

After all, there are several ways in which you can positively shape a relationship even without the exchange of private matters.

One possibility is humor – perfect for a noncommittal relationship that is nevertheless characterized by appreciation and sympathy.

So, if you are the type for it, don’t forget to joke with your colleagues from the specialist departments.

Another possibility is friendliness and showing appreciation for your colleagues’ work.

Thank your colleagues from the specialist department for the information they have sent you, praise a clear Excel spreadsheet or provide a document file to a colleague who needs it.

Because: You don’t have to invite your colleagues to your own birthday party to be friendly in order to build a pleasant and professional relationship.

 

Another point that you should consider when building relationships with your colleagues from the specialist department is impulse control.

In concrete terms this means avoiding emotional outbursts in interpersonal interactions.

So, if you have just had a meeting that made you so angry you could break the window – stay away from your colleagues in the specialist department.

Because in such emotional situations we need a counterpart with whom we can blow off some steam and be very personal.

A colleague from the specialist department is not the right person to talk to in such situation.

On the contrary: If you are suddenly very emotional with your colleagues, a relationship can change in seconds.

And it can take months to mend the relationship to what the professional relationship is was before.

My personal tip: In such situations, it is better to let off steam with the colleagues from the auditing department with whom you might have a completely different relationship and who might be better understanding the subject matter.

 

Language is also important when it comes to an appropriate relationship with your colleagues.

Even if at first glance it seems like an unimportant detail, language says a lot about the existing relationship.

This starts with the way you address each other – depending on the corporate culture, addressing your colleague by his last name or by his first name can suggest two different relationships.

The same is true for the vocabulary you use when dealing with your colleagues: The degree of formality can also be an indicator of how close two people are.

By the way, the same applies to actual body language: Depending on the corporate culture, even a pat on the back can say a lot about the relationship between two people.

 

As you might notice, the relationship between an auditor and his colleagues from the specialist department could, in an abstract way, be compared to the relationship between a manager and his subordinates, only without the power difference.

But of course, we humans are social beings and not robots – and there will always be people with whom we have more than just work in common.

The answer to this is: deal consciously with these somewhat close relationships.

Be aware that you run the risk of losing objectivity in your work when working with some colleagues.

Because even the awareness of this will help you to maintain objectivity in your work.

 

Be careful if someone who has done you a favor (i.e. giving you a better spot in the company car park) asks you for a favor in return or any other issue that might be directly related to your professional activity.

Never decide immediately in such situations – instead ask for time to consider the situation calmly and most importantly objectively.

And if you are still unsure even then, take a short coffee break with your auditing colleagues and carefully ask them about their opinion or assessment before you decide.

 

You see: dealing with colleagues is a tightrope walk for us auditors.

But what are your experiences with this topic? I look forward to your answers in the comments below.

 

Sources:

The Institute of Internal Auditors (2017). International Standards for the Professional Practice of Internal Auditing 2017. Frankfurt: Deutsches Institut für Interne Revision e. V.

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