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​The Black Bag Auditor

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The following story comes from a newspaper report from 1967 and is based on classic research that was conducted by social psychologist Robert Zajonc. I have adapted it from the book Dream Teams by Shane Snow. (And, if that doesn't make this a deep cut, I don't know what does.)

A mysterious student enveloped in a black bag attended a class at Oregon State University for two months. Only his bare feet showed. Each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 11:00 a.m., the "Black Bag" sat on a small table near the back of the classroom. The professor was in on the experiment and knew the identity of the student inside. None of the 20 students in the class did.

At first, the students were not particularly nice to the person in the bag. But, as they saw the Black Bag day after day, they became less afraid. Eventually, the professor reported that the students' attitudes changed from hostility to curiosity to friendship.

It's called "The Mere-Exposure Effect" and, as Snow notes in his book, "merely being exposed to [the Black Bag] over and over led students to stop being afraid of it — even to like it!" Zanjonc used this and other studies to show how people become less scared of things the more they encounter them.

Here's today's question. Outside of actual audit work, how often does the internal audit staff see, meet, converse, or socialize with your organization's employees? Are you out among them? Or are you cloistered in your department/room/cubby, always working real hard, diligently crunching the numbers, afraid to impair your objectivity by being seen as a human being?

I've told this one before, so here's the short version. During a training session, the topic of socializing and objectivity came up. One auditor vehemently stated he refused to join the bowling league because his independence and objectivity would be impaired. We all sat stunned by this revelation until the chief audit executive jumped in to say, "No. You're wrong."

Socializing within an organization has no impact on independence and limited impact on objectivity. Stifling socialization — making internal audit an unassailable bastion against association with the hoi polloi — only serves to make our job harder. If the only thing they see us do is audit work, no matter how positive and value-adding it may be, then we will always be the "them" to their "us." We will be an unknown "black bag" that occasionally wanders into the department, interrupts operations, asks intrusive questions, works from unintelligible intentions, and seeds fear and distrust with our mysterious visits.

For the Farmers Insurance internal audit department in Phoenix, success was based on our being accessible and spending time interacting with employees. No, let me rephrase that … being accessible and seeing ourselves as and putting ourselves out as employees who were part of the team. We talked to people as we passed in the halls. We took break and lunch with other departments. We were involved in extracurricular activities and committees. We held an annual open house. One year we held a poetry slam.

And some of us joined the bowling league.

And, because we were familiar to everyone — because the black bag had hung around long enough — we were recognized as co-workers, part of the organization, and fellow human beings.

Now, at this point the plan was for this post to come to an end. However, I wrote the rough draft before "Pandemalooza" overtook the world. (The less said about the way I work, the better. Just know there is quite a collection of half-finished blog posts on my computer.) And things have … changed. And the challenge of interacting with and being considered part of the organizational team has increased multi-fold.

How do you find opportunities to casually interact with employees when you're handling your work through a screen, meeting on Zoom, sitting at home in your shorts, taking breaks in your kitchen, and the only halls you wander are those between what you euphemistically call your office and the nearest restroom? Where are the serendipitous meetings, the casual conversations, the opportunities to be something other than an auditor monotoning away in front of a simulated backdrop of books, tasteful art, and other business-like office accoutrement? We find ourselves banished to Coventry, striving to find our way back into the real world of real people.

The solutions we've already talked about still apply. It just means we need to use a more purposeful approach. Actively reach out to people you know from outside the department and touch base — how they're doing, the challenges they are facing, expressing interest in their lives as one human being to another. Get on any and all committees that are out there. This means both business- and non-business-related. Even volunteering to help put together the organization's next virtual prom will help build those crucial relationships. (By the way, make sure the theme is "Enchantment Under the Sea.") Find ways to invite groups of people to meet with groups of auditors. Use Zoom (or your meeting vehicle of choice) to have a virtual get-together/happy hour/moment away from the realities of the world. Establish a book club. Start a discussion about where people will travel when they are set free. Put together a brainstorming session on how everyone can get together more.

Find any way possible to get the auditors' virtual faces in front of other virtual faces, showing we are people who respect, respond, and enjoy other people.

In these times, it is even more important that internal audit be considered part of the team. It will take extra effort, but it is infinitely worth it. It will help us in our risk assessment, it will help us in future audits, and it will help the organization. And, done correctly, it will help the fellow human beings within the organization who are struggling just as much as we are to connect to the real world.

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