Like everything in life, Covid-19 has resulted in positives & negatives (sic!) for us at home and at work. Equally so, for internal auditors it has presented challenges and provided opportunities. Let us examine its effect on one of the most obvious and basic tools used in our work: interviews.

Amongst a host of other complications, the pandemic created a new routine for the internal audit profession: remote interviews. Even though some of us were not strangers to this modus operandi, travel restrictions and working practically exclusively from home did considerably raise the stakes for this aspect of our audit toolkit. Consequently, internal auditors encountered several issues, which did not form part of their accustomed audit procedures.

First things first

Experience quickly taught us all that a critical role in such an interview scenario is played by the chosen communication platform. The importance thereof cannot and should not be underestimated. No matter what type of platform the auditor uses - audio or video - the associated equipment and settings, especially reliance on a stable connection, it is imperative to choose the most reliable means available.

Globalisation and the internet give us almost unlimited possibilities, including the ability to connect to practically anywhere in the world at the drop of a hat, as long as our interviewee is not asleep! With remote interviews it has become peripheral to the participants whether they sit opposite each other, in adjacent buildings, or on another continent. Nonetheless, when planning such interviews, care should be taken about the time zones involved, so as to select the mutually optimum time slot. Is it CET or CEST, WET or WAT? What do those abbreviations even mean? Let us ensure that everyone invited appreciates the impact of time zones. If the difference in time is significant, the parties should seek a common timing. It goes without saying that time management - both during face-to-face and remote meetings - should be as agreed and respected. Thus, a well-structured interview is one of the keys to success. The internal auditor must be prepared with the right questions about the process being audited as well as make the introduction about the interview flow smoothly in order to reliably secure the most relevant information.

Body language

The ability to observe – and interpret - an interviewee’s body language is a part and parcel of an internal auditor’s soft skillset, albeit admittedly not as critical as during an investigation. Minding the body movements and analysing them, aid the auditor to obtain a clear picture. The value of posture, facial expressions and arm movements during the interview cannot be emphasized enough. They can give an internal auditor hints about attitudes towards the topic discussed or display their reactions to the message the audit professional is conveying.

On the other hand, not seeing a complete image of your conversational partner can lead to unnecessary or erroneous conclusions being reached. In some instances, misreading someone else's facial expressions and body language could be misleading. After all, interpreting an interviewee's body language is simply the receiver's analysis based on their knowledge, skills, and background. In psychology this is known as false consensus effect or consensus bias and is described as “to see their own behavioural choices and judgments as relatively common and appropriate to existing circumstances while viewing alternative responses as uncommon, deviant, or inappropriate” [1]. In other words, one is making one’s judgement based on what one expects that something means, and not necessarily what is really meant, or what the other person actually wishes to communicate.

Considering how technical progress has influenced the physical boundaries of human interaction, cultural differences absolutely must also be taken into consideration. As an illustration, nodding one's head means a denial for certain nationalities, whereas others could perceive it as an affirmative. Clearly, the ‘faux pas’ list could be expanded further. This could therefore be puzzling for an inexperienced internal auditor working in an international environment. Conversely, overly putting emphasis on body language phenomena can result in unnecessary distractions for the internal auditor, rather than focusing on the topic under discussion.

So what is the conclusion here: to read or not to read? Do internal auditors lose important clues when conducting such remote interviews, especially if only audio is chosen for the conversation? Or do they gain when consensus bias unfolds? One thing is certain: keeping an open mind throughout the interview and relying on corroborative evidence helps the auditor to reach a conclusion based only on facts.

Building a rapport remotely

Concerns over privacy can diminish an interviewee's candidness and openness during a remote interview. There could be a lack of confidence whether the meeting is really restricted to those announced on the agenda or whether a third party is eavesdropping the discussion. Consequently, an interviewee might not speak candidly during that connection, being uncertain as to who might (also) be at the other end.

Thus, it is essential for internal auditors to establish rapport without physical contact. Active listening serves as an important factor in accomplishing this. Active listening techniques include, but are not limited to, verbal responses as interjections, e.g. "I see", "I understand". Internal auditors are encouraged to articulate their questions in an open-ended format prompting the interviewee to disclose previously unknown details. Audit professionals should periodically summarize the main points covered by the interviewee for, amongst other reasons, to show that the auditor is engaged and listening carefully. While using active listening techniques, one should focus on the content of the interviewee's speech and avoid thinking about the next question or interrupting the speaker. When ideally balanced, internal auditors are building a rapport, which opens the window for improved communications and better audit results.

Special credit is reserved for moments of silence. Whenever there is a pause during the conversation, especially on the phone, it is tempting to immediately fill it in with a follow-up question. Nevertheless, those few quiet seconds might get the interviewee to open up and prompt them to add further details.

In the previous section, the emphasis on body language was placed upon the person being interviewed. However, having a good comprehension of one's own behavioural patterns is just as important when an audit professional is seeking to build rapport. Appropriate body posture, arm movements and tone of voice are crucial to exhibiting confidence whilst remaining on friendly terms and avoiding confrontation.

On the upside

A positive side effect of remote auditing and interviewing is that it can produce time savings for audit planning, and thereby potential monetary benefits for organisations, too. The time spent on preparing a travel itinerary, logistics and reservations (tickets, accommodation, etc.) can be avoided and those savings used to fund other audit activities, perhaps training. Alongside time savings, an important milestone concerns the budget. With remote interviews, auditing expenditure can be reallocated or even saved.

Some organisations have already re-evaluated their operational environments and switched to full home office implementation, whenever and wherever technically feasible. Would some switch back to the exact same pre-Covid arrangements (despite) having already experienced the benefits of remote working? As always, time will inevitably tell. In any event, going forward auditors should be prepared and equipped to equally successfully perform face-to-face and remote interviews.


[1] Ross, L., Greene, D., and House, P. (1977). The false consensus effect: an egocentric bias in social perception and attribution processes.