Audit interviews: exploratory versus digging questions

Failing to bring home the goods

I believe most of us have been in a situation such as the following: we send out a young staff member on an interview, most often one of their first, only to have them come back with less than the information we expected them to. Then we hit ourselves over the head for not having briefed them at length. This wastes both their time, our time and our auditee’s time. And all of that time costs money.

Understanding the questions

It’s a rather common occurrence that young auditors often either don’t dig deep enough when interviewing, or fail to identify the entirety of the information an interviewee can provide them with. The reason? They often lack a basic understanding of different types and uses of interview questions, how to approach an interview, how to properly prepare for it and how to spread the questions to extract the maximum available information. Interviewing is an essential skill for any internal auditor. As we all know, there are many different aspects to a good interview. In the context of the issue above, I want to focus on a very narrow but important aspect of an interview: the nature of the questions you ask.

An interview as a key audit tool

An interview is an important audit tool. When you are conducting an interview, you essentially try to get a better understanding of the subject matter you interview a subject about. Interviews are a great way to get some essential information quickly, if you conduct them the right way.

There are, however, as with any tool, a few caveats. Keep in mind that interviews will – on the whole – provide you with less objective information than a document review will. Situations, occurrences, issues, problems are communicated to you after having been interpreted by the person you are interviewing. You see the information they provide you like it passed through their perception filter. Add to that your own perceptual filters, and you have quite subjective information.

It is therefore quite important to get a feel for an interviewee’s position towards specific issues in order to be able to interpret their comments correctly.

On the other hand, you may be confronted with reams and reams of information you have no chance getting through before your audit ends. You may be sure that you have the essential information, the smoking gun so to speak, available in the truckload of data that has been provided to you, but you need to find it first. A well conducted interview may help you with just that.

On an aside, I have the impression that the easier it is to transfer data, with the enormous load of data that is available, the more difficult it gets for the internal auditor to find the issues in all that information. Which explains to popularity of data analysis tools such as ACL and IDEA.

In order to be able to manage an interview well, you need to know there are many types of questions you can ask your interviewee. I usually distinguish between exploratory questions and digging questions. Each of these questions has their specific uses.

Exploratory questions

Exploratory questions are questions which allow you to explore the field of knowledge or information your interviewee has information about. They don’t necessarily tell you what the interviewee knows but they will tell you what they know about. The lines of questioning therefore do not dive deep into the information, but more or less scan the available information which we can gain access to through the interviewee. These questions are essential, as they allow the auditor to determine what the interviewee can provide in the context of the audit. You could compare it to reading the tables of contents of quite a few books and asking some questions about those. Exploratory questions allow you to determine what information is available, and whether or not that information has any relevance for your audit.

An exploratory question could for example be when you ask the foreman of a plant who is responsible for the maintenance of certain key infrastructure. He may answer “Pete” which then leads you to conclude that he does not necessarily know about the state of maintenance and that you need to talk to Pete. If he answers “me”, you know that he can provide you with information on the state of maintenance. This is likely important, but not enough information. After all, you need to understand what his subjective position towards infrastructural maintenance is. Is he against what he may consider an overly careful maintenance schedule, because it reduces output and thus bonus potential. Or does he find that the people get pushed too hard, with not enough maintenance work being done and working conditions being dangerous. Remember we talked about a subjective interpretation? Well, that information can provide you with insights in how the issues he has information on may be perceived.

Digging questions

Once you have a good view of the lay of the land, of the information your interviewee can provide you with, you need to identify what the information is you want to dig out. The digging is done by means of very specific questions that provide you with access to the information the auditee knows about. By using digging questions, the auditor focuses on a specific subject. You want your interviewee to provide you with everything he or she knows about that specific subject matter.

Digging questions are usually a combination of an open-ended question to start off with, clarification questions to clarify understanding of certain issues and then closed questions to confirm your understanding. For example:

Imagine the foreman has confirmed that he knows about maintenance of the infrastructure. You could then dig in with “Can you tell me about the maintenance of these machines in the past 2 years?” After having heard him, he may be indicating, but not yet entirely volunteering some issues with one of the machines. You could then ask “I seem to hear you say that machine A’s maintenance schedule was not respected. Can you tell me more about that?” After having heard the full explanation, you can confirm your understanding: “I understand that you feel that the production pressure leads to a reduction of the maintenance schedule of machine A, with in turn leads to safety issues for the team, am I correct?”

In conclusion

It’s important to be quick on your feet and to ensure that you do the digging in the right spot. It’s a bit like a treasure hunt, but there are no maps with X-es on them. Rather, an auditor needs to find the map, interpret the map, mark the spot, then go and digg and bring back the goods.

A well structured interview approach in which the interviewer is very conscious of what he is doing is an essential tool in the toolbelt of any auditor.