I have long believed that one of my strongest traits as an auditor is my ability to quickly connect with people and build rapport. For an auditor, being able to gain the trust of an audit client or stakeholder to allow them to feel comfortable sharing with you is an invaluable skill.
Before the pandemic, the process of building trust was largely a face-to-face endeavor. Today we have various platforms by which an interview can be conducted. While it may not be as ideal as sitting in the same room, a virtual interview still allows us to see each other and gauge at least some body language.
However, the proliferation of remote audit engagements may push the internal audit team to forgo an interview altogether, in favor of a survey.
As with so many aspects of life, I believe the decision of whether to conduct a survey or an interview is one that deserves balanced consideration. A survey is an opportunity to gather a lot of feedback quickly and efficiently. If the internal audit team needs to acquire information from a large number of people, a survey may be a more efficient method. Some other factors that could contribute to the decision to favor a survey over an interview include:
- The auditor’s preference for low or virtual contact versus an in-person meeting, possibly based on the circumstances.
- The time budget.
- The type of audit. For instance a compliance audit with a high amount of transaction testing may not require a lot of perspective from management. Alternatively, a performance audit of program implementation in the public sector, where feedback may be pertinent to the audit results, might necessitate an interview.
- The stage of the audit, such as the planning or risk assessment phase versus the fieldwork phase.
While there are valid reasons to conduct surveys, in many cases, there are some obvious drawbacks to relying on them. If an audit client is simply responding to a survey, there may not be the opportunity to expand upon thoughts or questions. Even with the inclusion of text boxes to encourage open commenting, audit clients may be less inclined to elaborate on their responses and may even fear putting their criticism or concerns into writing.
Further, if auditors conduct all questioning in a survey format, they may not be receiving the complete and objective input from the audit client needed to conduct the audit work. And if auditors draw conclusions from limited information, they risk not being able to adequately identify or address issues that may exist.
When faced with the same questions in a face-to-face or virtual setting, if the auditor can work to make the audit client feel comfortable, a simple question can potentially lead to valuable information about programs, processes, culture, and initiatives (and more) beyond what was initially requested. Internal auditors don’t know what we don’t know, and we don’t always know what to ask on a survey. A survey alone does not easily provide an opportunity for a deeper dive.
In addition to the opportunity to glean valuable information, interviews are also an opportunity to market the internal audit function as a problem solver, build relationships with audit clients, and generally make a good impression to help build the audit activity’s reputation as a valued partner in the organization.
A Quick Primer on the Virtual Interview
While virtual interviews may seem less natural, there are ways to conduct an effective interview while still following pandemic protocols or restrictions. As with any internal audit interview, in the virtual environment, the auditor must be aware of and manage potential distractions, including technical difficulties and background noise. Plan ahead and communicate in advance with the audit client, just as you would when scheduling an in-person interview.
Request that the audit client make themselves available on video if possible, to gauge body language. However, be prepared to be flexible — there may be circumstances beyond the audit client’s control. If interruptions arise, be prepared to reschedule a portion of the conversation. Try not to assume negative intent.
Consider that even virtual interviews may be far superior to surveys in many cases. Where time allows, auditors should consider conducting some interviews — maybe by choosing to follow up on unexpected or unique survey responses. The auditor also can ask respondents to signify if they would like to follow up with an interview.
When it comes to the quandary of ”to survey or not to survey,” take a balanced approach, but don’t forgo the art of interviewing altogether.