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​Why Tone Is So Important for Internal Auditors

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As part of unofficial "Internal Audit Self-awareness Month," I am featuring blog posts from the past that focus on looking inward. This theme is just as vital as any effort to build awareness about our profession. We must take a realistic and hard look at what we do, how we do it, and how we are viewed by those outside of the internal audit function. This week, I'm featuring a previous post on the tone we use when communicating.

You've heard: "It's not what you say, it's how you say it." Well, in internal auditing, I'd say it's a combination of both. What we say in our audit reports most certainly matters. The reports must be clear, concise, and accurate. But it's the way we communicate that will determine how our findings and recommendations are received. I call it "tone."

Have you ever sent an email that others misread as harsh or curt? Early in my internal audit career, I actually had someone tell me, after reading a draft of an audit report that I had written, "I agree with the recommendations, but I disagree with all of the findings." In other words, he agreed that there were issues that needed to be addressed, and he was willing to fix the problems. But it was the critical nature, or tone, of my report that caused him to push back.

Most people have a difficult time conveying empathy and warmth in writing, and this is especially true in internal audit reports. It is fascinating how often executives feel ambushed when reading a draft audit report, even when we keep them informed about results throughout the course of an audit.

What we perceive as an objective report that lays out our conclusions and recommendations for improvement may evoke fear and anger among those being audited, who may feel as if their successes and good works are being neglected by a process designed to highlight flaws and vulnerabilities. Sometimes, it's just their own personal pride and integrity that they feel is being attacked, but usually they are reading through a filter of, "How will the boss, or board, react when they read how my organization or operations are being described?" Sometimes, they believe our reports could actually threaten their next bonus, or even their career.

It goes back to what I have said about human nature: People like to be recognized for their accomplishments. As internal auditors, if we're not careful, we can fall into the trap of measuring our success quantitatively by the number of findings or recommendations we are able to generate. But how much more effective could we be if we focused instead on motivating those we audit to act on our findings to the betterment of the organization?

Put yourself in the shoes of those we audit and you will begin to understand what I'm talking about. We may think we have treated a person fairly, but we're talking about emotions here. Emotion and perception are not things we talk about very often, but they can have a significant effect on how an audit report is received.

As you look over your audit report, ask yourself how you would feel if those things were being said about your organization or your work. How are your written words going to be perceived? Is your report simply an accounting of everything wrong in the organization, or did you make an effort to recognize things you observed that were done well? Does the overall tone convey the true quality of the organization in a fair and balanced way?

There are many words and phrases that contribute to a negative or even toxic tone in an audit report. I have shared different lists over the years including the timeless blog, "10 Things Not to Say in an Internal Audit Report":

  1. Don't say, "Management should consider . . .".
  2. Don't use weasel words.
  3. Use intensifiers sparingly.
  4. The problem is rarely universal.
  5. Avoid the blame game.
  6. Don't say "management failed."
  7. "Auditee" is old-school.
  8. Avoid unnecessary technical jargon.
  9. Avoid taking all the credit.
  10. If it sounds impressive, you probably need a rewrite.

Instead of obsessing about outputs (quantity of findings and recommendations), we need to monitor outcomes (the short- and long-term impact of our work). If you change the way you measure the success of an audit from outputs to outcomes, you're likely to find that it will influence the way you write. A good audit executive is a change agent, not the chief of police. At the end of the day, I think we will be judged by our ability to improve the organization, and to do that, we can't afford to be tone deaf.

As always, I look forward to your comments.

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