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​Influence, Don’t Antagonize

The right language can make all the difference in an audit report.

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​Inexperienced audit staff members often believe they need to justify their existence by identifying major issues on engagements. Seeking to make an impression, they may use excessively critical or even sensational language, with no regard for diplomacy. This approach, while attention-getting, generally does not foster constructive dialogue or prove helpful to the client. Auditors must be conscious of reporting accuracy, but they also need to consider how their reports might impact the recipient.
Even when clients work hard to manage risks, internal auditors may still identify significant weaknesses or deficiencies in their area. When reports are worded carelessly, clients may interpret the content as adversarial, unfair, or hurtful, eliciting a defensive and negative response. Moreover, a critical report can have career-damaging consequences, even leading to dismissal.

Instead of a combative approach, internal auditors should consider a balanced, constructive reporting style, reserving strongly critical language for situations where evidence of negligence or incompetence exists. Facts can be colored by the way they are expressed — something that politicians and public relations experts have long realized. Auditors, too, should be mindful of the consequences their words can have.

Consider an observation that might be perceived as unnecessarily critical: “A review of customers’ complaints revealed that 28.9 percent of complaints were from customers annoyed by the heavy-handed and bureaucratic requirements for evidence of purchase before a refund was made.” Alternatively, the same observation could be expressed less judgmentally: “A review of customer complaints revealed that 28.9 percent of complaints were from customers experiencing difficulties in complying with the department’s requirements for evidence of purchase before a refund was made.” In both versions, the basic facts are the same — but the tone between them differs significantly.

Using harsh language, even if unintentional, can often be counterproductive, making clients less open to implementing changes. Of course, some situations merit a highly critical report, but even then auditors should consider whether the language used might be overcritical.

If the internal auditor’s objective is to achieve beneficial change, a balanced, constructive approach to findings and recommendations offers the best option. Softened language does not weaken the report or let management “off the hook,” especially if supported by a robust approach to follow-up of agreed recommendations to confirm implementation. Audit communications should be clear and honest, and report writers should not shy away from legitimate, justified criticism.

Internal auditors must choose their reporting language carefully, avoiding language that ultimately may undermine their efforts. Practitioners should place themselves in the client’s shoes and, ideally, use language that they themselves might want to hear. 

Ian Douglas
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About the Author



Ian DouglasIan Douglas<p>​Ian Douglas is a retired head of audit and an elected Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors. He is author of the book, <em>Writing Reports That Get Results</em>.​</p>


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