International Journal of Government Auditing – January 2013
Interviewing: An Essential Communication Skill for SAI Auditors
In the April 2012 issue of this Journal, Hassan Khosravi of the Supreme Audit Court of Iran suggested in his article, “Auditors and Effective Communication Skills,” that study in accounting and auditing does not usually include communication skills.
He observed that because humans conduct auditing and accounting, the lack of focused training in communication skills may be an oversight. He proposed that SAI auditors receive training in communication skills and that SAIs should actively promote those skills.
Experience has shown, and practitioners agree, that auditors cannot function without communicating. The ability to communicate plays an indispensible role in assuring auditor success and managing a successful SAI. Auditors trained in communication skills conduct audits more efficiently and effectively and are more productive. Significantly, such training helps SAIs conserve human and financial resources and better serve their stakeholders.
The ability to interview is an important communication skill an auditor must possess. If communications skills are essential to effective auditing and accounting, and auditing curricula do not adequately encompass communication skills, it is important for SAIs to ensure that their auditors are adequately trained in interviewing techniques.
Effective Auditors Are Proficient Interviewers
Interviewing is an effective communication technique that SAI auditors routinely utilize to accomplish audit objectives.
Auditors must be skilled interviewers to do the following:
- Acquire audit evidence. Collecting audit evidence is a fundamental reason an SAI auditor communicates. Much of the audit evidence collected results from auditors asking questions. Auditors identify individuals believed to be able to provide evidence and then, through interviews, collect that evidence.
- Obtain referrals to data sources. Auditors have a continuing need for data for use as audit evidence. The identification of data sources generally originates from auditor-conducted interviews. Auditors seek out and interview individuals who can identify data sources that will yield audit evidence.
- Obtain background information. Background information, essential to acquiring entity-related knowledge, facilitates an understanding of the audit environment. By interviewing knowledgeable individuals, SAI auditors acquire useful background, including historical, financial, social, operational, cultural, and demographic information.
- Obtain corroborating evidence. Once audit evidence is collected, SAI auditors can save scarce and valuable time by initiating corroboration through interviews.
- Test audit hypotheses, theories, and ideas. At various audit junctures, SAI auditors must communicate hypotheses, theories, and ideas about an audit’s objectives, scope, and methodology to audit colleagues, auditees, and others. This is facilitated through a series of professionally conducted interviews.
- Learn about audit subjects. Generally, no two SAI audits are exactly alike, particularly performance audits. SAI auditors must communicate with those engaged in the activities being audited to comprehend the nuances and intricacies of those activities. The interview is central to that process.
- Inform and persuade others. Sound communication skills are essential in obtaining agreement as to the accuracy of evidence collected and helping ensure that conclusions and recommendations are clearly understood and convincingly articulated. SAI auditors elicit, through interviews, views of entity personnel to assess their concurrence with the evidence collected and determine their agreement with conclusions and recommendations.
- Lead, instruct, and teach staff. SAI audits are generally carried out in a supervised team mode. Supervisory auditors must be sufficiently skilled in communication techniques to lead, instruct, and teach staff. To assure that staff fully understand audit objectives and know how to apply audit methodologies, supervisory auditors communicate with staff, asking questions that help provide that assurance.
Clearly, the ability to interview is a communication technique that SAI auditors must possess if they are to discharge their responsibilities efficiently and effectively.
The Nature of the Audit Interview
The primary objective of an audit interview is determining what the interviewee knows and does not know, and the nature and extent of the interviewee’s knowledge.
Many auditors have a limited understanding of the nature of the audit interview, believing that it is simply about asking questions. Understanding what an interview is and is not helps SAI auditors put interviews in perspective.
What an Audit Interview Is
An audit interview is a technique for efficiently and effectively collecting accurate, useful, complete, and relevant information for use as working knowledge, audit evidence, and a means for skillfully and professionally accomplishing audit objectives. It can be described as follows:
- A vehicle for the transmission of information from one person to another. Interviewees have information useful to auditors. An interview is the means by which that information transits from interviewees to auditors.
- A data collection tool to accumulate needed information. Auditors use many data collection tools. The interview is one of those tools and is used as carefully and precisely as statistical sampling, quantitative methods, computer-assisted audit techniques, and other data collection tools.
- A conversation with a specific purpose. Some audit interviews are conducted without a clear understanding of what auditors want to achieve. Auditors must have a clear understanding of the interview’s purpose and what the interview is intended to accomplish.
While it has been suggested that an interview is the weakest form of evidence, the audit interview is a primary means for collecting evidence.
What an Audit Interview Is Not
Interviewers must be aware of the hazards that may evolve during an interview. These vulnerabilities can interfere with the efficient and effective collection of information and avert the interview’s intent.
- Lectures. Audit interviews become lectures when interviewers lecture an interviewee and ask few questions. SAI auditors must remember that their role during an interview is to ask questions and listen to answers, not lecture the interviewee. Interviews also become lectures when interviewees view the interview as an opportunity to lecture auditors. Auditors must ensure that the interviewee addresses the questions raised and does not dominate the auditors’ time with lectures.
- Group discussions. Occasionally SAI interviews are attended by more than one interviewee. Such settings often become group discussions where essential information is not elicited from the interviewees. Interviews with groups or in the presence of monitors often disintegrate into group discussions. It is unwise to interview more than one person at a time.
- General conversations. Some interviews become general conversations when they evolve into discussions where the pleasure of intellectual enlightenment or the joy of discourse is the only result. When interviews become general conversations, little or no useful information materializes and costly SAI time is wasted.
- Interrogations. Interviews resemble interrogations when the interviewer conveys the impression that the interviewee is in custody and his or her presence is involuntary. Audit interviews are noncustodial; interviewees consent or agree to be interviewed. While an interviewee generally has the option of not consenting to an interview, some employees, particularly government employees, may be required to cooperate with an interviewer.
If these hazards emerge during an interview, auditors must make certain that they are recognized and remedied.
Auditors Must Be Aware of Impediments to Effective Interviews
An impediment is anything that interferes with the auditor’s ability to conduct an interview and obtain accurate and complete information. An interviewee’s behavioral reactions during an interview can become impediments and reduce the interview’s productivity.
The SAI auditor will encounter certain types of interviewee behaviors, either real or contrived, that can be impediments, including the following:
- Nervousness. The auditor must reassure the interviewee. The auditor must attempt to determine the reasons for the nervousness and address them, bearing in mind that the observed nervousness may be feigned.
- Confusion. Often the interviewee acts confused about the interview’s purpose. The auditor should reiterate the interview’s objectives and clarify the questions. Again, the confusion may constitute an attempt to obstruct the interview.
- Over-friendliness. A friendly interviewee can be distracting. Overfamiliarity should be avoided because of the possible loss of objectivity. The auditor should be careful of engaging in too much small talk and should quickly develop a sense of how much is appropriate.
- Hostility. Auditors should not be intimidated by hostility and never respond to it in kind. Reasons for the hostility should be isolated and dealt with appropriately. Interviews need not be terminated unless an auditor perceives the possibility of personal or other danger.
Interviewee behaviors often have their genesis in the cultural, educational, and experiential differences between interviewees and interviewers. Because these behaviors can influence an interview’s outcome, auditors must recognize and acknowledge them and be prepared to adapt their interview techniques to accommodate them.
When planning an interview, an SAI auditor must consider all possible impediments so as to reduce their impact on the interview. Some experienced auditors consider it feasible to conduct pre-interview discussions with interviewees. Establishing a rapport with the interviewee can create a setting for the interview. This practice may obviate or reduce the impact of these impediments.
Determining Whether an Interviewee Is Being Truthful
Lying or deceitfulness during an interview often occurs because interviewees want to shirk responsibility, avoid punishment, or garner reward. If an interviewee is being deceitful during an interview, it can cause him or her some stress, which may then precipitate noticeable attempts at evading responses.
Indicators of potential deception include the following:
- Changes in speech patterns. The interviewee slows down or speeds up responses to certain questions.
- Repeating the question. The interviewee repeats the interviewer’s questions, taking that time to craft a deceptive or nonresponsive reply.
- Nonrelevant comments. The interviewee interjects comments irrelevant to the questions asked in an obvious attempt to distract the interviewer.
- Excuses. The interviewee, feeling the stress of being held accountable, conjures up excuses or begins to blame others.
- Oath-like statements. The interviewee swears or utters vows when responding to questions, attempting to convince the interviewer that what is being said is truthful.
- Character testimony. The interviewee suggests that the interviewer ask the interviewee’s colleagues to attest to the interviewee’s character, abilities, or truthfulness.
- Answering a question with a question. The interviewee repeatedly asks questions instead of responding to the questions asked.
- Overuse of respect. The interviewee showers the interviewer with exaggerated and insincere compliments, attempting to gain the interviewer’s favor.
- Manipulation. The interviewee, attempting to dissipate stress, plays with objects at hand like pencils, a tie, a cup, or papers.
SAI auditors must be alert for verbal and physical cues while listening to an interviewee’s responses and should be fully aware of how the interviewee sounds and behaves during the interview. Attentive listening helps the auditor judge the reliability of the interviewee’s answers and facilitates an assessment of the interviewee’s integrity.
The ability to interview is one of the most important skills SAI auditors can possess. Effectively conducted interviews result in the accumulation of accurate, useful, complete, and relevant information needed to accomplish audit objectives. Poorly conducted interviews may increase an audit’s cost, diminish the quality of audit outcomes, and damage an SAI’s reputation by creating doubts about its integrity and reliability. SAI auditors with well-developed communication skills, including the well-honed ability to conduct interviews, are an asset to SAIs and their stakeholders.
It is important for SAIs to make certain that their auditors are adequately trained in communication techniques that specifically include interviewing skills. Accordingly, SAIs should actively promote the development of communication skills and ensure that their auditors are well-trained in interviewing techniques.
For additional information, contact the author at NMZacchea@aol.com.