Language Barriers in an Audit

How do you audit a system when some of the employees can only communicate in a language other than your own? And what if they can’t read the available work instructions?

According to the ANSI-RAB National Accreditation Program Criteria, the audit team must be able to communicate effectively, both in writing and orally, in the required languages.

The ISO 19011:2002 auditing guidelines say to consider the languages to be used during the audit, as well as, social and cultural aspects, when establishing an audit team. The guidance also says auditors should be able to communicate effectively, either through their personal linguistic skills, or through the support of a competent interpreter.

The IAF Guidance on the Application of ISO Guide 62 states additional auditor time will be necessary if the organization speaks more than one language and an interpreter is required.

So, you should determine in advance if any of the people to be interviewed only speak a language other than that of the audit team. Depending on the extent of the language barrier, you may decide to include an interpreter on the team. Or, you may choose to use a translator provided by the auditee (and accept that risk).

In either case, you should allow extra time for the translation of questions and responses. You should also include in your audit report that the team relied on translation for certain interviews and identify the resulting risk of miscommunication.

However, auditors gather objective evidence by 1) interviewing people, 2) observing activities, 3) reviewing documents, and 4) examining records. You can still assess the area by watching the people perform the work, looking at the available procedures, and analyzing the records.

But what if a work instruction can’t be read by some of the operators? Whether they can read it or not, they must carry out their duties in accordance with the documented process.

Of course, if the organization felt the instruction was necessary for their English-speaking employees, I would want someone to explain why it isn’t necessary for all the employees. Maybe they provide special training to accommodate the non-English speaking personnel. Perhaps they use flowcharts with process symbols and photographs to minimize the need for text in multiple languages.

Find out how the organization is overcoming the limitations for employees that do not read or speak the language used for the documentation. Determine how process changes are communicated to all the employees.

Different native languages can be an obstacle to an efficient (extra time) and effective (miscommunication) audit. However, with proper planning, support, and questions, the barrier can be overcome.