Audit Interviews (1 of 2)

Audit interviews are one of four ways to gather information during an audit, the others being to review documents, observe operations, and examine records. Efficient and effective interviews are the key to a successful audit.

WHY INTERVIEW?

Some auditors are outgoing and gregarious. They enjoy talking to people and having them demonstrate and explain their activities. Others may be more reserved, and possibly concerned about confrontations, so they would prefer to just review documents and examine records. However, you need a balanced audit approach, which includes gathering information through interviews, observations, documents, and records.

Interviews are extremely important because they help you look beyond the documented process. Interviews with the process manager, and the people performing the work, may uncover the “actual” process. This process could be dramatically different than the documented version.

There will be processes that are not documented, and the only way to determine the process requirements, is to interview the process owner. All of us have responsibilities beyond those written down in a procedure or instruction. The only way to uncover those duties during an audit is through interviews.

Also, interviews give us an opportunity to see how well people are being made aware of their responsibilities, and to get a sense of their process understanding and level of commitment.

AUDITOR FAIRNESS

During our interviews, we want people to perceive us as being thorough, but fair. We should be assessing for conformity, not nonconformity. Our value as an auditor is not tied to how many nonconformities we find. It is not a competition. If you think your job is to find nonconformities, then you’ll approach the audit in a negative manner.

So, you really do assess for conformity, and along the way, you may find some nonconformities. Be sure to also point out the area’s strengths, not just their weaknesses.

Part of being fair during an audit is to take representative samples, which includes the selection of the people to be interviewed. Involve a good cross-section of the jobs in the area, and pick your own sample to interview. Don’t be steered to the same experienced people every audit.

And, if after you complete your sample, and the allotted time has expired, don’t keep auditing just because you haven’t discovered a nonconformity. Instead, thank them for their time, and say that based upon your sample, no nonconformities were found. Keep up the good work.

However, remind them that finding no nonconformities does not mean there are no nonconformities in their area, since it was a limited sample during a brief period of time.

INTERVIEW STEPS

You interview people at their workplace, not yours. You need to be where they feel comfortable and have access to their job information. And, they need to be in their area to show you how they perform their tasks. Schedule the interviews to be conducted during their normal work hours to be considerate, to avoid possible overtime, and to be there while the work is being performed.

If you’ve been interviewed, you realize the person being interviewed might be a little nervous about the audit, or very nervous about it. It is important to put them at ease and lower their anxiety level. You don’t have to immediately jump into your questions. If you sense nervousness, spend a few moments talking about non-audit topics to relax them: weather, kids, pets, or sports. However, it would be wise to avoid talking about sex, politics, or religion.

Explain to the person being interviewed why you are there, and that you need their help to understand the process. Ask questions about their job. Have them demonstrate how it is done. But remember, they may not be used to explaining their job while doing it, so be patient and understanding. You could even suggest they follow their instruction (it is an open book audit).

You will usually interview more than one person in an area. If you get different answers, verify their responses. Check on the manager’s understanding of the process. See what their documents say on the subject. Maybe the different methods are acceptable and not in conflict.

When you think an activity may be nonconforming, make a tentative conclusion. Share your concern. No secrets. This will allow you to confirm it really is a nonconformity, or find out it was just a misunderstanding on your part. Better to discover your mistake at that point than later.

At the end of the interview, summarize the results. Remind them of any nonconformities that were found and discussed. Hopefully, you can say that the area was found to be conforming, or mostly conforming, based on your audit sample. Then, give them a chance to discuss any other topics on their mind. See if they’re responsible for any areas that weren’t addressed during the interview. Maybe you missed an important process.

Also, please remember, it is an interview, not an interrogation! Treat them like you’d like to be treated if the roles were reversed.

ASK FOR PROOF

When I teach an onsite internal auditor class, and follow it with a practice audit, we have a debriefing afterwards to get student feedback. They usually share that they failed to take sufficient notes and they failed to ask for evidence.

The lack of note taking is because they got so involved in the audit and somehow felt it was only important to take notes if it was a nonconforming situation. You need to also take notes for the conforming areas to record your sample and to use for reference later in the audit.

Their failure to ask for proof of conformity is due to being too gullible based on logical and confident responses. And, they didn’t want to appear untrusting. However, you must ask the “show me” questions.

An expression to remember: “Investigate a claim; accept an admission.” If someone claims their activity is performed in a conforming way, politely ask for the proof. If a responsible person admits that a required activity was not done, then you can accept that admission of nonconformity.

QUESTIONING TECHNIQUES

When you ask a question, actively listen. Don’t be thinking about your next question; be thinking about their current answer. Rely primarily on open questions (who, what, when, where, why, and how) for expanded responses. Avoid closed questions, except to confirm answers.

You may want to ask for explanations and examples to better understand the process. And, rephrase your question to gain clarification. Ask it in a different way. Also, keep neutral on the subject. Don’t take sides. We are fact finding, not fault finding.

It is okay to ask “suppose” or “what if” questions. The main path of the process may work fine, but the parts that deal with exceptions or deviations may not work as well. However, remember that you can’t expect that every situation has been covered in training and the documents. It would be acceptable if the person being interviewed says “I would go to my supervisor in that situation.”

Some auditors worry about being able to ask knowledgeable questions. Well, a simple question, trying to learn more about a process, may expose a basic flaw. And, don’t be afraid to ask a blunt question about known problems, or to ask for their opinion of the quality being produced by the process. While we can’t write a nonconformity based on an opinion, we can ask further questions to uncover facts that may support their opinion.

What if they only give you a short, snippet of an answer? You may even wonder if they have been coached to not volunteer anything. Try just being quiet and waiting for more of an answer. To some people, silence is not golden. They may fill that quiet time with an expanded answer.

INTERVIEW NOTES

A key part of interviews is taking brief notes on what has been seen and heard. But first, explain why you are taking notes. Otherwise, they make think you are “writing them up” when you make notes.

It is important to record specific details in your notes. Identify revision levels, serial numbers, work areas, etc. You’ll need this information to define your audit sample, and you may need it for writing a nonconformity report.

When can a statement be used as evidence? If the management representative says, “We did not hold any management reviews last year”, there is no need to look for meeting minutes; they don’t exist. So, the nonconformity report can use the management representative’s statement as evidence the reviews were not held as required.

Since you may be interviewing multiple people about an activity, be aware of their different answers for the same question. Follow up to get at the real facts. Your interviews may also identify additional activities for review that were not part of your original audit sampling plan.

Part 2 of this article will appear in my April 2013 newsletter.