Is the element of surprise helpful when it comes to conducting an audit? Caitlin McArthur, Audit & Compliance Manager at Sodexo, makes the case against surprising clients with an audit.
In my experience among auditors in several fields of work, there has generally been an assumption that the unannounced audit is the best way to get to the truth of what is happening in a particular operation.
During the pandemic, it became pretty much impossible to arrive unannounced on a site. In our auditing environment, this has led to a more nuanced approach to auditing – and a movement towards the announced audit.
Announcing an audit
As an auditor, the answers to the following questions have always been of interest to me:
- How should the auditee feel about an audit – terrified, shocked, scared? Or assured in the fact that they will be able to address any doubts they may have about policies and procedures?
- Does an audit add more value to the company and the auditee if it provides a proper plan and clear expectations for both parties?
- What is the best approach as an auditor – interrogator or critical friend? By catching auditees out, or instead by understanding what they are doing and answering any questions they may have?
It is my strongly-held opinion that the announced audit has better outcomes in a number of important areas.
My career has taken me on a journey that has included catering college, a management trainee programme, operator of a site with one member of staff (who was ‘challenging’!), running sites with an excess of 100 staff, training, and now my current role as an audit and compliance manager. This means that I have been the auditee and now I am the auditor.
There are multiple reasons why an audit process should achieve maximum value for all concerned but, for me, the top one is that it involves the most important aspect of people’s lives – time! Respecting people’s time is a fundamental of good management and employee well-being.
When I first joined the audit team five years ago, unless there were security restrictions – for example in prisons – we would turn up at the site unannounced and expect to complete an audit whether it was convenient or not.
“The key element that I believe helps to have a positive outcome is thorough audit planning, and effective planning needs to include all concerned – both the auditor and the auditee.”
I found this approach created shock and terror in our site teams and, on most occasions, in me too. In nine out of 10 cases, the manager and the people who should benefit from the audit (if they were even on site that day) would move into defence mode before you had even left the reception desk, and the chances of a cup of tea were very slim.
Several people burst into tears when they found out who I was, and on one occasion I turned up to audit an operation on a boat that was at that moment travelling down the Thames several miles away. Not the best use of my time, or a good start to creating an open and honest conversation about health and safety, and food safety processes and practices.
Our audit department is in place to provide protection and reassurance to the company that all legal and company policies and procedures are in place. There are set criteria through which to measure performance at our sites. If performance is below standard, it leads to actions and an increase in awareness of safety performance and compliance.
Ensuring employee wellbeing
Auditing is also a critical resource for achieving my most important aim, which is ensuring the health and well-being of our employees. People reading this may be thinking that the most important aim is to prevent prosecution and civil cases, but I am going to stick with my priority, which is assisting in ensuring that our employees return home in the same condition in which they arrived – except maybe tired after a day’s work!
The key element that I believe helps to have a positive outcome is thorough audit planning, and effective planning needs to include all concerned – both the auditor and the auditee. I did a recent audit of an operation in an airport lounge. When I proposed an audit date to the manager he asked for a delay because the client was due in from Abu Dhabi on the proposed day. By the time the audit happened two weeks later the manager had organised the rota so that all key staff were on site, and identified some areas of company procedure that he was unclear about and needed guidance on. All round, an excellent, collaborative learning experience.
The approach now within my audit and compliance team is to announce the audit by sending an invitation, at least seven days prior to the audit date. This invitation provides the site with an audit plan and an introduction to when the audit will take place and with whom. This helps the site team plan and ensure that resources are in place to get the maximum out of the visit.
Some cynics may be thinking that it means the audit is staged and that the team will soon go back to not following processes. However, I don’t believe that to be the case. If they have been through files to gather all the paperwork that proves their performance, given the site an extra clean and got themselves into the right frame of mind, that can only be a good thing: They are then ready to receive a visit from a critical friend, engage in sometimes difficult conversations and make the best use of everybody’s valuable time.
This can sometimes be achieved with an unannounced audit, but it is much less likely, so my vote is for announced audits every time.
Find out what topics within assurance CQI's Audit SIG Committee are working on and prioritising.