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2013 Become a Better Interviewer

2013 Become a Better Interviewer
8/7/19, 4)08 PM
a Better Interviewer
Well-formed questions and attentive listening skills can help auditors
separate truth from deception during interviews.
 James Ratley
 June 01, 2013
Imagine that while auditing your organization’s accounts payable process, you find
some anomalies that indicate that certain controls involved in the process might not
be functioning as intended. You decide to interview Phil, the employee responsible for
approving invoices and processing payments. After a brief introduction, you begin
asking Phil about the area of concern. Consider the difference between these two
opening questions:
Is it correct that, once you receive an invoice, you pull the related purchase order
and receiving report before approving it?
What is your role in the accounts payable process?
Although the first question might elicit helpful information, it would encourage Phil to
address only that particular piece of the overall function or simply agree with your
assertion. The second question, in contrast, prompts Phil to describe his role in the
context of the overall process. His response would provide information not only about
invoice approval procedures, but also about what Phil views as the important points of
his job and even about other areas where the controls need to be shored
up — information that would likely be missed if the first question were posed.
Now imagine your audit procedures indicate that Phil is actually circumventing the
controls intentionally — possibly to conceal a scheme in which he is approving
invoices from, and cutting checks to, a shell company that he owns. Which of the two
questions would be less likely to clue Phil in as to why you are asking about his area of
Most internal auditors spend much of their time asking similar questions of staff
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members and others to gather information. These interviews are conducted for
numerous reasons, including to understand the day-to-day operations of an area,
assess internal controls, identify fraud risks, or follow up on tips of potential fraud.
However, unlike other evidence-gathering methods, such as reviewing documents and
analyzing data, interviewing is a dynamic process that requires auditors to identify
often fleeting or subtle pieces of evidence, as well as to be able to adjust their approach
quickly in response to new information they uncover.
Asking Good Questions
Often, how a question is asked is equally important as — or more important
than — what is asked. Effective questions allow auditors to obtain the information
they seek, identify new areas to explore, and watch for signs of misinformation or
deception in responses, all while retaining control of the interview and not providing
the interviewee with information indicating what the auditor does or does not know.
In contrast, poorly constructed questions can result in the auditor failing to uncover
important information, missing opportunities to expand the interview, potentially
overlooking warning signs of fraud, and inadvertently revealing the limit of the
auditor’s knowledge to the interviewee.
Learning the art of effective interviewing takes patience, practice, and planning. This
does not mean all questions must be mapped out in advance; many successful
interviews are conducted organically, with questions asked off-the-cuff, based on the
responses received. However, whether they are crafting interview questions in
advance or on the fly, auditors should keep several guidelines in mind.
Focus on Clarity
Some auditors try to gather as much information using as few questions as possible
and end up receiving convoluted or vague responses. Others seek confirmation of
every detail, which can quickly turn an interview into an unproductive probing of
minutia. Balancing thoroughness and efficiency is imperative to obtaining the
necessary and relevant facts without overburdening the interviewee. Because the
location of this line varies by interviewee, auditors can find this balance most
effectively by ensuring they ask clear questions throughout the interview.​
Consider, for example, the effectiveness of these two questions in asking about a
procurement employee’s purchasing authorization limits:
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When you make a purchase, what is the process, and what sort of authorization
limits do you have?
Can you authorize purchases of more than US $5,000, or do you need a
supervisor’s approval to do so?
Both questions appear to address the issue, but neither does so effectively. The first is
overly broad and requires a complex answer (or two answers), while the second
question could be answered accurately with both a “yes” and a “no” and likely would
require follow up by the auditor. Convoluted or overly vague questions enable an
interviewee to avoid providing false or incriminating information while still
responding to a portion of the question that is in his or her comfort zone. Conversely,
a clear, direct inquiry, such as “Please tell me about any authorization limits in the
purchasing process,” leaves much less room for avoiding the truth.
Be Polite Yet Assertive
Some individuals might respond to a question in a way that doesn’t provide a direct
answer or that veers off topic. Sometimes these responses are innocent; sometimes
they are not. To make the most of an interview, auditors must remain in control of the
situation, regardless of how the interviewee responds.
Being assertive does not require being impolite, however. In some instances, wording
questions as a subtle command (e.g., “Tell me about…” or “Please describe…”) can
help establish the interview relationship. Additionally, remaining in control does not
mean dissuading the interviewee from exploring pertinent topics that are outside the
planned discussion points. For example, if an interviewee starts to wander into a
different topic that is relevant to the interview but not directly related to the issue in
question, the auditor might respond with “I heard you mention Y, and I want to learn
more about that. But first, can you continue telling me about X?” In such instances,
the interviewer must be mindful of interrupting, as individuals often provide useful
information during their digressions. Nonetheless, if the person is not staying
remotely on point, the interviewer should not hesitate to bring him or her back on
Use the Right Types of Questions
Interview questions can be structured in several ways, each with its own strengths,
weaknesses, and ideal usage. Open questions ask the interviewee to describe or
explain something. Most audit interviews should rely heavily on open questions, as
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these provide the best view of how things actually operate and the perspective of the
staff member involved in a particular area. They also enable the auditor to observe the
interviewee’s demeanor and attitude, which can provide additional information about
specific issues. However, if the auditor believes an individual might not stay on topic
or may avoid providing certain information, open questions should be used cautiously.
In contrast, closed questions can be answered with a specific, definitive
response — most often “yes” or “no.” They are not meant to provide the big picture but
can be useful in gathering details such as amounts and dates. Auditors should use
closed questions sparingly in an informational interview, as they do not encourage the
flow of information as effectively as open questions.
Occasionally, the auditor might want to direct the interviewee toward a specific point
or evoke a certain reply. Leading questions can be useful in such circumstances by
exploring an assumption — a fact or piece of information — that the interviewee did
not provide previously. When used appropriately, such questions can help the auditor
confirm facts that the interviewee might be hesitant to discuss. Examples of leading
questions include: “So there have been no changes in the process since last year?” and
“You sign off on these exception reports, correct?” If the interviewee does not deny the
assumption, then the fact is confirmed. However, before using leading questions, the
auditor should raise the topic with open questions and allow the interviewee the
chance to volunteer information.
Listening vs. Hearing
If the auditor fails to fully absorb an interviewee’s response, even the best-worded
question will be rendered useless. And absorbing the response entails more than
hearing what is said; it requires actively listening—that is, paying attention to,
interpreting, understanding, and reacting to the interviewee’s meaning, not just his or
her words.
As with all in-person communication, both parties in an interview use verbal and
nonverbal signals to convey messages to each other. Some of these signals are
intentional; others are involuntary. Successful interviewers know how to read these
signals and adjust their own signals accordingly to encourage the other party to
communicate openly.
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Facilitators and InhibitorsKnowing what factors can facilitate and inhibit
communication can help the auditor put the interviewee at ease (see “Facilitator and
Inhibitor Examples” below). Facilitators of communication open the flow of
conversations between individuals and motivate them to continue interacting. Other
situational factors have the opposite effect; they inhibit communication by making
one party unable or unwilling to provide relevant information. By maximizing
facilitators and minimizing inhibitors, an auditor can improve the dynamics of
interviews and encourage others to provide information openly.
Active Participation
Active listening is imperative to encouraging interviewee participation. The
interviewer’s active participation through verbal and nonverbal cues conveys interest
and promotes rapport, thereby increasing the interviewee’s engagement. Some
indicators of active participation that can help auditors connect with an interviewee,
facilitate communication, and understand the individual’s responses include:
Eye contact. The auditor should establish and maintain an appropriate level of
eye contact with the interviewee throughout the interview to personalize the
interaction and build rapport. However, the appropriate level of eye contact varies
by culture and even by person; consequently, the auditor should pay attention to
the interviewee to determine the level of eye contact that makes him or her
Mirroring. People tend to mirror each other’s body language subconsciously as a
way of bonding and creating rapport. Auditors can help put interviewees at ease
by subtly reflecting their body language. Further, the skilled interviewer can
assess the level of rapport established by changing posture and watching the
interviewee’s response. This information can help auditors determine whether to
move into sensitive areas of questioning or continue establishing a connection
with the individual.
Confirmation. Confirming periodically that the auditor is listening can
encourage interviewees to continue talking. For example, the auditor can provide
auditory confirmation with a simple “mmm hmmm” and nonverbal confirmation
by nodding or leaning toward the interviewee during his or her response.
Attentive echo. When the interviewee finishes a narrative response, the auditor
can encourage additional information by echoing back the last point the person
made. This confirms that the auditor is actively listening and absorbing the
information, and it provides a starting point for the person to continue the
Periodic summarization. Occasionally, the auditor might summarize the
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information provided to that point so that the interviewee can affirm, clarify, or
correct the auditor’s understanding.
The Interviewer's Role
An integral part of internal auditing involves obtaining information from people.
Regardless of the interview’s objective, auditors should embrace the role of
interviewer and use time-tested techniques. But asking the right questions does not
necessarily ensure key information will be uncovered; an effective interviewer also
recognizes the need to separate truth from deception. Consequently, crafting effective
questions, understanding the communication dynamics at play, actively participating
in the interview process, and remaining alert to signs of deception will help auditors
increase the effectiveness and efficiency of their interviews and their overall
Facilitator and Inhibitor Examples
There are numerous factors that can facilitate or inhibit communication
during audit interviews. Examples of communication facilitators include:
Recognition. All human beings desire the recognition and esteem of
others and often will “perform” in exchange for such acknowledgment.
The skillful interviewer takes advantage of every opportunity to give the
respondent sincere recognition.
Altruism. Many individuals have a deep need to identify with a higher
value or cause beyond immediate self-interest. Auditors can call on an
individual’s altruism to reinforce the importance of helping the
organization and explain how the interview process serves this purpose.
Sympathy. People have an inherent desire to share their joys, fears,
successes, and failures with others who understand them. Effective
interviewers exhibit a sympathetic attitude and encourage the
interviewee to open up.
Catharsis. Catharsis is the process by which a person obtains a release
from unpleasant emotional tension by talking about its source. Auditors
who listen to what might be considered inconsequential or egocentric
talk will likely find the interviewee more willing to share important
Examples of communication inhibitors include:
Competing demands for time. When conflicting demands for time are
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present, the interviewee does not necessarily place a negative value on
being interviewed, but weighs the value of being interviewed against
doing something else. In such circumstances, the auditor must convince
the individual that the interview is a good use of time.
Threats to ego. In some cases, the interviewee might withhold
information because of a perceived threat to his or her self-esteem. Such
threats might be internal (e.g., repression of information that does not
conform to the individual’s values or expectations), or the interviewee
might fear the disapproval of the auditor or others.
Etiquette. An etiquette barrier occurs when providing an answer could
be perceived by the interviewee as inappropriate (i.e., he or she believes
that answering candidly would be considered in poor taste or evidence of
a lack of proper etiquette). Often, etiquette considerations can be
avoided by selecting the appropriate interviewer and setting for the
Trauma. Trauma is common when talking to victims of crimes or other
stressful events. The unpleasant feeling is often brought to the surface
when the individual recounts the traumatic experience. Auditors must be
particularly sensitive in how they handle such circumstances during
Forgetfulness. The inability to recall certain information is a much more
frequent obstacle than most interviewers expect. Three primary factors
contribute to recollection of an event: the event’s original emotional
impact, the time that has elapsed since the event, and the nature of the
interview situation. Knowledge of these factors can help the interviewer
anticipate potential problems.
James Ratley
​James Ratley, CFE, is president and CEO of the Association of
Certified Fraud Examiners in Austin, Texas.
Copyright © 2019 The Institute of Internal Auditors. All rights reserved. | Privacy Policy
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