​Repairing a Broken Relationship in Your Internal Audit Department

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​Throughout my career, there have been times when I joined a new internal audit function and it quickly became apparent that the chief audit executive (CAE) operated in a very different way than what I was accustomed to. In some cases, the CAE had a different style or preference for communicating with clients. In other cases, the CAE was a stickler on technical issues such as how findings should be communicated, how working papers should be assembled, or which words to ban from audit reports. In most instances, I was simply able to adapt to the CAE’s preferred style or philosophy. After all, the CAE was the boss, and I was obliged to take direction from him or her. (Still, I tried to work subtly to influence his way of thinking or preference on technical issues — never pushing too hard, lest I undermine the relationship and progress I was making.)

I suspect that all of us, at one time or another, will encounter a similar experience. Whether you’re the CAE or the staff auditor, in most cases you’re likely able to navigate the situation without the relationship becoming damaged or broken. But what happens when it does? What happens when a CAE decides that an otherwise talented internal auditor just doesn’t fit into his or her organization? Or when the relationship gets so bad that the CAE won’t even speak to the staff auditor?

Though I’ve been fortunate to never experience this first-hand, I’ve led many external quality assessments where I’ve witnessed this “broken relationship” scenario and the devastating effects it has on the organization. I’ve seen CAEs lose confidence in a member of their staff and otherwise capable internal auditors become marginalized, pushed into a cubicle, and assigned menial projects.

In some cases, this toxic environment persists for years, ending only when one party departs the organization. Meanwhile, the situation is not healthy for the internal auditor, the CAE, and certainly not for the internal audit function.

The good news, however, is that with a commitment by both parties, it can be turned around.

For a CAE who finds himself or herself in the situation described above, I suggest five steps to “rehabilitating” the relationship with your staff member and returning that person to the productive fold:

  1. Sit down and objectively chronicle the issues or events that caused the loss of confidence in your internal audit subordinate. (You may even find that you cannot remember the triggering event or events.)
  2. Take the time to document the individual’s strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses will jump out at you. Don’t finish this exercise until you have documented five strengths.
  3. Forge a plan to communicate honestly and openly about the state of the relationship. Ask your organization’s human resources professional for assistance/advice.
  4. Agree on a plan to repair and rehabilitate the relationship. Set specific goals and agreed-upon measures. Be flexible in the specific solutions you propose.
  5. Communicate regularly and openly throughout the recovery process. If the relationship has any chance of recovery, communication will be a key factor.

For the internal auditor on the other side of the broken relationship, I offer this advice:

  1. Signal your interest in resetting the relationship. If the CAE doesn’t take the lead, propose the five steps above as a path to recovery.
  2. Never forget that the CAE is the boss. You may not like the person, but you won’t be effective until you resolve to take direction from him or her and adapt to the way the CAE wants to run the internal audit function.
  3. Take a critical look at yourself. These scenarios are rarely one-sided. Are you a hard worker? Are you poised, polished, and professional? Do you exemplify the values of the organization? If you solicit the CAE’s candid assessment, you are apt to hear things that will force you to take a close look at yourself.
  4. Commit yourself to getting “out of the dog house.” It will take hard work and a commitment to constantly exceed the likely low expectations of your skeptical CAE.
  5. If you believe the root cause of the problem is an absolute lack of respect or trust for your CAE, then resolve to leave the organization. Life is too short to work under such circumstances.

Broken relationships in internal audit departments are not uncommon. If you are caught up in one, resolve to make 2014 the year in which you repair the damage and put the past behind you.

As always, I’d like to hear your stories and additional thoughts on this topic.

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