How often has the way someone described what we do made you cringe — or feel slighted, if not outright insulted? Choice examples from my own career include: "You are just a bean counter," "You are a corporate cop," and "Internal audit is a necessary evil." I suspect most of us have never counted any beans or practiced law enforcement — and we are certainly not evil.
So, why does this happen? Why do people see us this way, and sometimes feel the need to say it aloud? I can think of at least five reasons:
These reasons are not mutually exclusive — the disparaging remarks may be explained by more than one of them, or even all five. Perceptions of internal audit can vary depending people's prior experience with auditors, the culture of the organization, attitudes among senior leadership, and many other factors. But with the right effort, negative perceptions can be changed. Several proactive steps, in particular, can go a long way toward correcting misconceptions and ensuring a more accurate view of the profession.
Look in the Mirror
When we hear negative comments, our natural tendency is to become defensive. But we should resist that urge and instead consider what we may have said or done to make others form that (potentially undeserved) opinion of us. Auditors should ask themselves if they could change their approach, behavior, or demeanor in a way that might alter the way they're perceived. Asking for feedback from trusted sources within the organization, as well as seeking out the confidential advice of a fellow practitioner at another company, may provide insights on potential blind spots. Before pointing to others, auditors should make sure their own house is in order.
Nip It in the Bud
On the other hand, the negative stereotypes we are trying to dispel or avoid may stem from organizational leadership. The CEO, chief financial officer, or other executive leaders might refer to internal audit in a way that paints a negative picture. I have experienced this in the past, and I usually just laughed it off. But in hindsight, it would have been better to politely call out the behavior in private and ask the executive to stop doing it. Failure to condone negative stereotypes, even if they are in jest, can help minimize or even eliminate the unwanted behavior. Auditors should address any negative comments tactfully, but early on — before they solidify people's impressions.
Auditors should also combat hostility and distrust by developing strong relationships with key individuals. These people consist not only of the senior-most executives, but anyone in the organization considered an "influencer" of other people's opinions and views. Some internal auditors like to hide behind a perception of mystery and intrigue. But taking that approach usually works against them, enabling negative stereotypes to persist. Auditors should take the time, outside of normal audit activities, to invest in relationships and proactively manage perceptions.
Let the Client Become the Auditor
If the opportunity presents itself, and the organization is supportive, internal audit could consider a guest auditor program or rotational staffing model. In these scenarios, people who are positioned elsewhere in the organization would spend time in the audit function working on one or more projects. Guest auditors might join internal audit for a single project, whereas rotational programs may involve multiple projects and span one to three years. Through these programs, people in the organization who are not internal auditors get to learn what internal audit is, what it does, and how its practitioners perform their work. When the rotation ends, the participants become potential advocates for the audit function and can help dispel invalid perceptions or myths about the profession.
Take a Deep Breath
Sometimes the fear of the unknown causes anxiety and negative opinions. Until something becomes familiar and understood, quelling that anxiety can be difficult. Especially when reviewing a new area, or an area where many key people are new since the last audit, taking the time to ease concerns can help prevent negative opinions from forming. Practitioners should spend time talking with clients before the project formally begins, if possible. Alternatively, they could build extra time into the project budget to ensure ample opportunities for informal discussions. Clients should get to know auditors as "real people" and have a safe place to ask questions. Then perhaps internal audit will not seem as intimidating, and the audit process will not be such an unknown to them.
Shifting the Perception
While by no means comprehensive, the above steps can go a long way toward dispelling myths and cultivating positive relationships. The key is to adopt a proactive, measured approach and to maintain consistent effort. Those who persist can help change their function's image from a necessary evil to an essential ally.