I thought of dealing with a difficult and sensitive topic for auditors. The corporate world views auditors with jaundiced eyes and auditorville has a bad reputation. Scott Adams in his book “Thriving on Stupidity in the 21st Century” humorously described auditors in the following paragraph:
“Auditors get more respect and more bribes than accountants. That is because auditors are relatively more dangerous. Auditors are generally plucked from the ranks of accountants who had very bad childhood experiences. The accountants who don’t go on to become serial killers have a good chance of becoming successful auditors.”
The reputation comes from doing post mortems, writing long reports on deficiencies and criticizing the work of business teams. No one likes a critic and especially not those who do not do any value addition. So where are we going wrong?
1. Criticizing Makes an Auditor Successful
The common perception is that more faults an auditor finds in an audit, the better is the quality of the audit. This is driven by the fact that some audit departments have a key performance indicator on number of observations. If there are no observations or weaknesses, the audit quality was not good. Let me mention an old story here.
A couple was riding a donkey to reach their village.
Two passer-by’s saw them and said – “Poor donkey, has to take the load of two humans.”
The husband heard the comment and got of the donkey. Further, two passer-bys saw them and said-“See, the wife is sitting comfortably on the donkey and the poor husband is walking on the road.” The wife got off the donkey and made her husband sit on it.
After a few kilometers two spectators said – “See what the world is coming to, no chivalry. Man is riding the donkey and the poor woman is walking.” Now both husband and wife started walking along with the donkey.
Then another set of bystanders said – “See the idiots, both are walking and no one is riding the donkey”
The purpose of audit is to provide assurance on the process, not find faults with it. For instance, last year you conducted an audit of purchasing process and made ten observations. Will the audit of the same process be successful if you made 11 observations or nil observations? If auditee implemented previous year recommendations, then they should not re-appear. If without a change in process, you found new weaknesses, then it means the previous year audit was not done properly. Hence, criticism doesn’t make an audit a success or a failure. The quality of observations holds meaning.
2. My Way or Highway
The other presumption is that audit can be done without much of business knowledge. Just high-level understanding is required. This is really an incorrect view. I recall in my training period I was assigned an internal audit client that flew helicopters. When I was doing bank vouching, I had said to my colleague doing cash vouching -“Wish we were auditing a car maker, at least I know the cost of a car tyre.” I was checking the appropriateness of expenses including repair and maintenance of helicopters when I hadn’t seen a helicopter from a five feet distance, let alone sit in one. Your guess is as good as mine on the quality of observations and value addition provided.
The big problem comes, when after doing an audit without business knowledge we refuse to listen to the business teams that the observations are irrelevant or incorrect. We don’t appreciate the different perspective of business teams and high-handedly push down our recommendations. Times of India mentioned a nice joke on this last Sunday.
Why did the chicken cross the road?
Plato: For the greater good.
Aristotle: To actualize its potential.
Darwin: It was the next logical step after coming down from the tree.
Neitzsche: Because if you gaze too long across the road, the road gazes back at you.
Buddha: If you ask this question, you deny your own chicken-nature.
In the 21st century, auditors can’t hold a stick to beat the business teams all the time. The role has changed. With it the skill set and approach needs to be changed. If auditors are not able to give a better solution or process change, they should consider whether their criticism makes sense or not. Maybe, business needs to live with the control weaknesses, take the risks because the costs of plugging them are very high. The observation and recommendation should provide value addition, either in the form of assurance or improvement. Else, a lot of expenses are made to cater to auditors’ egoistical viewpoints rather than seeing business viability.
Author: Sonia Jaspal is a Chartered Accountant and Certified Internal Audit with +15 years of experience in risk management and corporate governance. She blogs on Sonia Jaspal's RiskBoard (http://soniajaspal.wordpress.com)