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Which generic skills are essential for auditors?

auditing Aug 04, 2021

Based on client feedback and interest, this blog post has been enhanced and made into a stand-alone document with text, graphics, and the checklist. Use the guide “What Are Essential Auditor Skills?” to identify:

  • What to look for when auditees communicate with you and
  • How to effectively communicate with auditees.

We invite you to download the guide “What Are Essential Auditor Skills?” and include it as a resource in your audit program. It is the second of a series reviewing the soft skills, generic skills, and knowledge that auditors need to be effective.

What does an auditor and an octopus have in common? They both must multi-task and manage several priorities simultaneously. An auditor needs to be proficient in several generic skills to be effective.

Imagine an octopus. You can imagine all the “arms,” right? Did you know that each arm is self-controlled? There is no central brain coordinating all the arms. Each arm is taking in feedback and responding to stimuli autonomously. This is difficult for humans to imagine, perhaps impossible. Yet, it is a good analogy to express how complicated communications are when auditing.

Imagine an auditor. They must be listening, writing, reading, and speaking with speed and agility. This requires a bit of multi-tasking to be able to switch focus as needed during interviews.

Let’s explore essential GENERIC SKILLS starting with one word: communication. One simple word for a very complex answer. Are you ready to dive in to explore these foundational skills to be an effective auditor?

Caption: Auditors must be able to pay attention to multiple priorities while auditing; such as listening, looking closely, and writing. You might also imagine multiple documents being reviewed too!

A. The 3 Pathways of Communication

There are three (3) main pathways of communication: words, tone of voice and body language. The research of Dr. Albert Mehrabian shows the actual words contribute only 7% of the message. The tone of voice (38%) and body language (55%) matter more. Keep this in mind as we go back to the octopus and think about communication overall, both TO and FROM the auditor.

B. Communications TO an auditor

  1. Observe body language.
    The auditor's eyes must observe body language to get clues about the persons being interviewed. The auditor's brain interprets these visual clues based on their cultural biases to give them meaning (e.g., mad, sad, glad, etc.)

  2. Listen attentively.
    The auditor's ears must listen attentively to what they say. The auditor's brain analyzes the words and visual clues to evaluate consistency or contradiction between the two signals.

There are many books on the subject of reading personal clues. The book Reading People: How to Understand People and Predict Their Behavior--Anytime, Anyplace discusses paying attention to the pattern of people. The perspective of the author is related to jury selection where decisions are made quickly either for or against selecting the person for the jury.

The book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking is a good source to become aware of your personal biases and judgements you make in the blink of an eye. Unconsciously. Things are not what we might think. It is insightful to challenge our preconceived assumptions.

Make adjustments to suit the situation observed. 

Once the auditor has taken in the clues from the people and their interactions, the auditor must adjust their style to be effective. Is the person very direct and busy? Would they appreciate getting right to the point about an issue? Or would the person prefer to be “warmed up” with more casual conversation before getting into the interview?

  1. Read written information.
    The auditor's eyes must read a lot of written information. The auditor's brain must interpret these words, looking for details and holistic understanding of the described processes and systems. An interesting tidbit is that our minds fill in information that is not on the page. Test your brain to see if it can actually read this passage:

I cnduo't bvleiee taht I culod aulaclty uesdtannrd waht I was rdnaieg. Unisg the icndeblire pweor of the hmuan mnid, aocdcrnig to rseecrah at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mttaer in waht oderr the lterets in a wrod are, the olny irpoamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rhgit pclae. The rset can be a taotl mses and you can sitll raed it whoutit a pboerlm. Tihs is bucseae the huamn mnid deos not raed ervey ltteer by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe. Aaznmig, huh? Yaeh and I awlyas tghhuot slelinpg was ipmorantt! See if yuor fdreins can raed tihs too.

Unfortunately, I do not know the source of this research. I have been amazed that persons whose language does not use these letters (e.g., Chinese, Russian, etc.) can still read this paragraph!!

It is important to have some independence from what you are reading, otherwise you will see what you think should be there. Your mind fills in information!

C. Communications FROM an auditor

  1. The unspoken message: From the above example, your body language is 55% of the message you are communicating before any words come out of your mouth.

  2. The spoken word: What comes out of our mouth has two key factors. The tone (38%) and the actual words (7%) combine to deliver what you are intending to say. Auditors must strive for consistency so that the tone and words do not send contradictory messages.

  3. Interviewing: Asking questions in a way that provides objective information from the auditee requires skill. Who, what, when, where, how, and why are good words to begin a question. They lead to open-ended responses. Starting questions with “Do…” or “Does…” results in yes or no responses with little factual information provided. Yes/No questions can also be very misleading. You could ask “Does the company have a contingency plan?” They may say “no” because the title of their document is a continuity plan. The way the auditor asks questions impacts the quality of the information given and the resulting findings.

  4. Notes: Salient points of what you think you heard need to be recorded for your notes. These notes are used by you, the audit team, and may be part of the official audit record. Since it is difficult to listen and write notes, the notes often become skimpy. Yet, trying to capture everything is neither useful nor time efficient. Capture enough to support understandable findings and the overall report.

  5. Findings: Regardless of whether the finding is conformity or nonconformity, the client needs to understand the issue and why they should care. Complete information is essential. Jargon should be avoided unless your goal is to confuse. Remember, the auditor needs to write for someone who was not present during the audit. They may not know much about the ISO requirements either. Writing clearly for them helps ensure more understandable findings for everyone. Use complete sentences.

  6. Audit Report: This is the capstone of the audit process. It should be more than just a list of the findings. The report is where the audit team can really add value to the organization and engage the leadership team. Analysis and evaluation to support an executive summary is an essential skill, especially for lead auditors.

D. Other Key Auditor Skills

  1. Putting auditees at ease: The interview can sound like a chat or casual conversation or become a deposition by a lawyer. In fact, one student in an auditing class was a lawyer. Her goal for the week was to practice asking questions without diving into deposition mode!

  2. Time management: Respecting the agenda or audit schedule enhances the relationship with auditees. It demonstrates respect for them and their time. Even if the auditor has planned well, staying on track requires attention and diligence. I often request help from the auditee or escort by confirming the planned stop time at the beginning of the interview. This gives them permission to speak up at designated progress points (e.g., half way, 30-minute warning, etc.).

  3. Conflict resolution: Being able to prevent conflict is the best case. Yet, once something goes awry, the auditor needs to be able to recognize the brewing conflict and start to defuse it. We’ll explore this topic in future posts.

  4. Discerning fact from fluff: Like a math word problem (e.g., The train is going east at 50 miles. There are 45 people on the train. etc. etc. etc.). Auditees often give more information than is needed. An essential skill is to sort through the information to decide what is factual and reliable and what is extra information.

  5. Stay organized: There will be many documents involved (both paper and electronic) and many facts to manage in the notes. The last thing anyone wants to hear “it’s in here somewhere.” Auditors waste a lot of time fumbling through papers. Use sticky notes, flags, etc. to help manage the potential chaos. Electronic file management requires special planning to manage documents you have reviewed, which requirements they address, and which are requested but not received yet.

  6. Be logical: During an audit no one wants to play “Plinko” from the TV show, “The Price is Right.” That game involves a round disc being placed at the top of a rack of pegs. The disc bounces all over until it lands in the tray which decides the prize. Auditees really appreciate getting an overview of the path the audit interview plans to take. For example, from start to finish or from finished product back upstream, etc. Follow the process or system to be better able to evaluate how parts work together. Random facts make it difficult to write a meaningful report.
Caption: Diana and her daughter exploring an octopus research center in Hawaii.

You may have thought that having all these generic skills might require superhuman abilities to be an effective auditor. Not really. However, being aware of which skills matter can help you notice when audit interviews are going well or turning sour.

We invite you to do a self-evaluation to identify which of the auditor skills are part of your nature and which may be challenging for you.

Utilize the below checklist and make notes. This is the beginning of being open to feedback. Ask others for their perception of you. See if their feedback aligns with your self-assessment.

Use this baseline to leverage your strengths, seek mentoring or coaching to enhance your generic skills, or team up with auditors who have complimentary behaviors. You CAN do it!

Download our self-assessment checklist

Coming up: Auditor Knowledge

An Octopus is an incredible animal with fantastic powers. They feel, touch and taste with each sucker. Find out much more about them in the book: The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness

As a thank you for reading this far, here is a bonus with beautiful photography. Enjoy the official trailer for the movie, My Octopus Teacher.


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