How to Survive an Audit or Inspection at Work

A few years ago I was working on a contract job after my retirement, and I had an occasion to contact an office with my former company. I gave the secretary my name, and she seemed to recognize the name, so I asked if we knew each other. She said “Oh yes, you’re the auditor.”

I had performed what we referred to as an operational review on that office sometime in the mid seventies and she still remembered my name. Audits make a strong impression on an operation so an auditor or inspector should always treat the operation and employees respectfully and honestly. The operation being audited or inspected should treat the auditors or inspectors in the same way.

Auditors and inspectors come in all sizes, shapes and levels of knowledge. Some are very experienced in their area of expertise and others are far from being experienced auditors or inspectors. You must be prepared to accept and respond to both experience levels with equal respect and clarity.

How cautious should I be?

First of all, keep calm. I have never heard of someone being injured or killed by an auditor or inspector. When people get nervous, they usually talk too much and that can be your biggest mistake. Carefully consider each question that is asked and never provide more information than what is needed to answer the question directly. The more you say, the more they are going to ask about. Never assume that the question is about some situation that is not being directly addressed with the question. If the question is about making change from a cash drawer, for example, you should not drift off and start explaining how your bank deposit is made. Always assume that if they want to know, they will ask.

Should I challenge the auditor’s lack of knowledge?

Often times, an auditor or inspector will not know your responsibilities as well as you do. Some times these people are selected as auditors for their skill at investigating a problem, more than what they know about the process or procedure being audited. Auditors are challenged many times because they are thought to be wrong about the proper process or procedure. Challenges should be the responsibility of appropriate management personnel only. A challenge, improperly delivered, can be interpreted as an insult to the auditor or inspector’s knowledge or awareness of proper procedure. Don’t take a chance; let the manager or supervisor issue the challenge. Be aware that they sometimes ask questions that sound unreasonable and address issues that do not conform to proper procedure but they could suspect something is being done wrong and they are just asking to see what your response is.

What if they make unreasonable comments?

An auditor once said to one of my cashiers, “Boy, that is a lot of money. What would you do with all that money?” She was astounded. She said, “Nothing,” and then came to me because she was worried about it. What the auditor did not know was that the cashier in question took her cashier responsibility so seriously she would likely tear the counter (her workplace) apart if she thought a penny had fallen down a crack in the surface. Auditors will say things like this to see what your response is. I know the technique is silly and I never used it. When this technique was used during the audit of my office, the entire office had a good laugh about it afterwards. There is no rule that says that an auditor or inspector is a genius. I know because I have been an auditor.

What if they make unreasonable requests?

An auditor came to my office once for the purpose of auditing our “left-in” file. A “left-in” record maintained many years ago is a way of keeping track of phones that were left in the house after service was disconnected. I assigned a supervisor to drive her around town while she verified a sampling of the records. Our town was a small, southern, rural town and easily crossed in a short time. The auditor would get out of the car, go to the front door and knock. When no one answered she would go to two or three windows, peek inside and see if there was a phone inside. After doing this at a second house she came back to the car and started to give the supervisor the next address. Before she could say it, he asked her, “How many times are you going to do that today?” She said that she had about eight more. He said to her. “Somebody will end up shooting you if you keep doing it this way.” She decided to call off the audit till a later day and they returned to the office.

You can state your opinion if you are sure it is reasonable to do so but only if their request or approach is obviously not reasonable. You should never commit an unsafe act trying to satisfy an auditor or inspector. They can document your unsafe act as easily as any other item. Every auditor and inspector has the ability to insert a comment or finding not associated with his/her assigned task.

Is there a distinction between proper procedure and “how we do it in this workplace”?

An auditor or inspector can ask a question in one of various ways. You must make that distinction in your mind before you answer a question. If you are asked if you know the proper procedure, you should say you do if that is true. If you are asked if you can state the proper procedure, you can state the proper procedure if you know it. Remember that you only state how you perform the procedure when asked directly about how you perform the task. If you are asked if you perform the task according to the proper procedure, you must answer honestly. Never, ever lie to an auditor or attempt to deceive them. The rule is to answer the question directly and concisely but do not offer additional information. Talking too much can only cause you and your co-workers some grief.

Two suggestions you may want to consider

If you have a regularly scheduled document retention program, you may want to have it suspended during the audit. During an office audit many years ago we actually had an auditor look at a document one day and the document was destroyed the next day according to a long established FCC retention schedule. The auditor had not alerted us that the document needed to be retained for his purposes. It took hours for the auditor to get over it.

The second suggestion is to request an audit as soon as a new manager is assigned. My peers and I used to call this “letting the audit department do the hard work for you”. If you are a newly assigned manager the findings are not going to be a reflection on your efforts because you just arrived. You will also benefit from the audit revealing what it might take you weeks or months to find. The only problem with requesting audits is that the auditors realize what you are doing and it becomes difficult to schedule an audit.

Any other rules I need to know?

Sure there are. The first rule is to correct any problem instantly if possible. I saw someone stop one of their critical operations from being completely shut down by simply correcting all but one discrepancy on the spot as quickly as each discrepancy was detected. A good, quick response can work to your benefit but much depends on the attitude of the auditor or inspector. The second rule is to ensure that the written audit results are responded to quickly. The third rule is to never get caught making the same mistake in a follow-up to the original audit or inspection. Make absolutely certain that all audit or inspection findings are corrected quickly.

In summary

Audits and inspections can be a traumatic experience for all. My experience has always been that the employees that are worried the most have a good reason to be worried. I have seen managers occasionally replaced as a result of an audit but the dismissal action was appropriate in every case. My advice is to “stay cool” and use common sense and accuracy in your responses. Always recognize that the auditors and inspectors are just doing their job the same way you are doing yours.