Types of Questions to Ask in Internal Audits
Updated: May 14, 2020
In this blog we are going to look at questioning skills. This is really coming back to the fact that we have already identified interviewing people as one of our key sources of objective evidence during the audit process.
First, we will look at the different questioning styles and when and where to use them, based on the type of evidence you need.
You will often want to choose a style that gets you the response most effectively, or occasionally you may choose a style of question to help manage your auditees.
This is going to be a commonly used question style when starting a new audit with a new auditee.
This can even be breaking the ice, by asking things like “how was your weekend” just to build some rapport.
If you’re auditing how chemicals are received and stored into the warehouse, as an example, you might start with some ice breaker/open questions, such as: “are there any chemicals that need to be separated?” or “are chemicals always put inside the bunded area when they are delivered?”
You’re not asking them to talk about everything in the world related to chemical management. You need to put some boundaries around your questions.
Open questions work well for a lot of auditees to make them feel comfortable, because they are not thinking “the auditors are really fishing for specific information, I’m not sure what they’re looking for” You are simply saying to the auditees, “in relation to how you store chemicals at work tell us what you think is important about that to start with.”
It can be a good technique for us, as an auditor too, to get a bit of an understanding of the process and how they do it. In terms of the type of auditee that might work well with, sometimes we start auditing someone, they are giving us a reasonable response and after a while the amount of what they are saying is dropping away, so throwing it back to an open questions can be a good way to get the conversation started again.
You should follow the pattern of starting off with an open question or two, then coming to one of the other styles (particularly closed questions) which are almost the opposite of open questions.
This is where you can narrow down the range of responses you are getting. Closed questioning techniques work well if you just need specific information.
Say for example that you are looking at an induction process, and need to see whether Fred has been inducted, you may as well say “Can I see the induction record for Fred?”
Closed questions are nice and specific and they are also a good time management tool. By using this questioning style, the audit will keep moving, which a busy auditee will prefer.
Open questions will give you an understanding of what your looking for and why, then the auditee will be happy to give you specific records if that helps cover off that requirement.
Personally, I don’t use challenging questions all that much but they can help if you’re getting an overly rosy picture, generalised responses or even getting high level responses and we need to get down to the next level of detail.
An example of a challenging question is one that I’ve actually come across from time to time. Let’s say you’re at a construction site and they are saying “No we haven’t had any incidents in the last two years” and your thinking you are probably the only construction site I have ever heard of that hasn’t, so you are getting that overly rosy picture.
This would be a good time to throw in some challenging questions there, such as:
“Is there evidence you have trained the team in how to report incidents?”
“Are the incident reports available to staff in their work areas?”
“As a business how do you define an incident?”
Things like that can be a way of getting down to that next level if we need to.
Summarising / Reflective Questions:
Summarising or reflective questions will take the style of starting the next audit question with a statement. These are a really good style of question.
You want to be giving a bit of a statement on what the auditee has just said.
So for instance, if they have just said “it’s really important that we get notified by the front office that a delivery of chemicals has arrived, we can get the forklift out and put it straight in the bunded area.”
A summarising and reflective question would start with a statement of “So you have said its important you get the chemicals into the bunded area as soon as you can…” and then you would go onto the next question.
You don’t have to do that after every type of question, but it confirms a couple of things;
Do you actually understand what the auditee has just told you? You may not understand everything 100% perfect the first-time people tell you. By restating what they have said, they can correct you if you have misunderstood and therefore feel confident that you are representing that accurately.
Auditees really like it because it shows you are listening. Often you have to write down audit notes, which may lead to people think you are not listening due to lack of verbal communications.
Don’t overdo it though. At really key points in the process, ask a reflective or summarising question.
You can put simple questions into your auditors toolbox – they are your friend.
“Why do we do it this way? How? Who? When? What if?" All of those kinds of questions can help keep the audit going.
If you’ve asked a lot of technical questions, you may need to change to simple questions to keep things going. This style of questions helps keep things in plain English, maximising the chance that auditees actually understand what you are looking for.
Often simple questions are the best. Questions like “What if…” can be a great way of exploring contingency and looking at low-likelihood events.
Let’s say you are auditing an organisation with a night shift supervisor. What if that person is not in on that shift, what is the backup or contingency process for that?
I have audited sites where you are saying “what would happen if you had a leak from your chemical storage area?” “Oh no I’ve been here 20 years and its never happened.” And you are trying to audit their emergency response processes. “But what if a spill was occurring today, what would you do?” can help explore those lower likelihoods scenarios.
There is a risk of overdoing that but even “why are you doing that a certain way? Can be a good exploratory question as well.
‘Show Me’ Questions:
This is a really good question if you have an auditee who is not saying much, particularly if they have an operational role and that’s their strength.
Those people are much happier to demonstrate. So by asking “show us how you set the machine up” rather than asking five or six questions about how the machine is set up.
If that’s their strength, they are much happier to show you and you can throw in one or two questions at the end and you’re done. It’s a good approach.
A leading question is when you will be trying to force the auditees to give you one answer and one answer only. This is totally inappropriate and you should never use this during an audit.
An example of a leading questions if I said to all the viewers “you are immediately going to like this video, aren’t you?” That is obviously forcing you into one answer and one answer only.
You want to actually do the opposite of this. You want the auditee to feel like they are empowered to give an answer that represents what they actually think about how the process is performing.
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