CPE for Government Auditors

Interviewing Skills for Government Auditors
Chapter 2: Interviewing Competencies

Learning to be a good interviewer is like learning any new, initially awkward skill. You get better at it the more you do it.

Remember when you first learned to drive a car, and you couldn’t drive and put on your turn signal at the same time? Eventually, you were able to tune your radio, talk on your cell phone and eat a sandwich while driving. (I drive a large white sedan with Texas tags, by the way, if you want to avoid me!)

So, when you first begin to interview, you may be able to ask just the few questions on your list and be thankful that it is all over. After about 10 interviews, you can start to ask relevant follow-up questions, and after 30 or so interviews, you are so relaxed and so experienced, that you get right to the heart of the matter very quickly.

What not to do

Here is a list of behaviors to avoid in an interview. Short of this, an audit client easily tolerates most boo-boos.

15 deadly interviewing sins

These errors will knock huge chunks out of your emotional bank account:

  1. Starting late
  2. Handling questions improperly
  3. Seeming to be off schedule/task
  4. Not establishing personal rapport
  5. Ending late
  6. Not covering the objectives promised
  7. Not checking the environment
  8. Not admitting mistakes
  9. Using inappropriate humor
  10. Using inappropriate language
  11. Coming off as an expert, a know-it-all
  12. Displaying anger
  13. Arguing with an interviewee
  14. Not allowing everyone who wishes to a chance to speak
  15. Not demonstrating that you want to help the client

I love this quote:

“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.” —Ambrose Bierce.

Twelve competencies

Being good isn’t just about avoiding being bad, but also about developing skills and competencies. An experienced interviewer has mastered twelve competencies. A competent interviewer will:

  1. Analyze background materials
  2. Assure preparation of the meeting site
  3. Establish and maintain credibility
  4. Manage the emotional environment
  5. Demonstrate effective listening skills
  6. Demonstrate effective presentation skills
  7. Demonstrate effective questioning skills
  8. Respond appropriately to interviewee’s need for clarification and feedback
  9. Provide positive reinforcement
  10. Record results in a clear manner
  11. Resolve all outstanding issues
  12. Evaluate their own performance

1. Analyze background materials

Before you walk into an interview, you need to do a little homework. Do not walk into an interview expecting the client to fill you in on everything, or be helpful when you haven’t even taken the time to get to know them or their organization. Before you go in, you should have a sense of the following about your interviewee:

  • His position in the organization
  • The scope of his responsibilities
  • What his department’s goals and functions are
  • Who he reports to and who reports to him
  • How his department fits into the whole organization


The GAO’s Yellow Book requires that you gain an understanding of the following as part of planning a performance audit:

GAGAS 2011

6.13     Auditors should obtain an understanding of the nature of the program or program component under audit and the potential use that will be made of the audit results or report as they plan a performance audit. The nature and profile of a program include:

  1. visibility, sensitivity, and relevant risks associated with the program under audit;
  2. age of the program or changes in its conditions;
  3. the size of the program in terms of total dollars, number of citizens affected, or other measures;
  4. level and extent of review or other forms of independent oversight;
  5. program’s strategic plan and objectives; and
  6. external factors or conditions that could directly affect the program.


Recently, I made the mistake of trying to “wing” a meeting. I thought, “Hey, I’ve conducted plenty of trainings on this topic. I don’t need to prepare!” Boy, was I wrong! I should have called several members of my audience and asked them what they wanted to know about my topic.

Watching someone screw up is painful, especially in a one-on-one situation. American Idol is fun only because you are watching it on TV and not there in person!

In general, you should spend at least as much time preparing for an interview as you do conducting the interview. Many would advise you to spend twice as much time preparing for a meeting or presentation as you do conducting it.

2. Assure preparation of the meeting site

You need to take control over the physical environment of your meeting. You need a quiet, comfortable place to meet that is free of distractions so that the interviewee can share and you can listen well.

I once tried to conduct an interview in a busy interviewee’s office. It was impossible. She was answering emails and the phone as I was meeting with her. She had stacks of paper piled up on her desk. As we were talking, members of her staff were lining up outside her door. We were both so distracted that the interview was a waste of time.

I called her back later to ask her if she would mind meeting me in my office the next day. I closed my door and we had a good 20 minutes of quiet before one of her staff people found her! That is really all I needed to get the referrals to others who could answer my questions and help me complete my work.

3. Establish and maintain credibility

I remember being a brand new auditor and being intimidated by the age and experience of my auditees. I was a 24-year-old facing a 50+-year-old executive director—and grilling him, no less, about his procedures. I now realize auditors never get over the feeling that they don’t know what they are doing. That uneasiness comes with the job. If you are performing risk-based audits, your approach and your topic changes every time.

Here is where you need to face reality. Of course you have no idea what you are talking about when it comes to the client’s job! The client is obviously going to know their job better than you do. What you DO know—and they are very unlikely to know—is how to conduct an audit. The only thing you have to hang on to is your knowledge about what the next procedure is and what you want out of each procedure.

The main way to maintain your credibility is to maintain your confidence about the audit process. If you seem unsure of what you are doing—what you are auditing and your own procedures—then you lose credibility. You will not lose credibility by not knowing the client’s job inside and out. No one can reasonably expect that.

I recommend admitting that you are not as knowledgeable as the interviewee right up front. I also recommend weaving it together with a compliment. Try something like this, “Wow! You are really experienced. Thank goodness you are here to guide me, as I could never accumulate your depth of knowledge on this subject. Thank you for helping me understand what you and your staff do.”

4. Manage the emotional environment

The emotional environment can be safe or threatening, light-hearted or humorless, friendly or adversarial. It is your choice. You set the tone for the interaction.

If you come into the interview in a friendly mood, 99% of the time, you are going to get a friendly response. If you use a little humor, you can lighten up what is otherwise an intimidating experience. You will never be able to completely rid your relationship with the client of all of its tension, because you are there as a judge. No one likes being judged.

But, you can set the initial tone and work to keep both you and the client on an even, emotional keel. If your auditee is upset over something, you have two choices. You can deal with it or you can blow it off and keep moving forward with your interview.

If you choose to deal with it, you are going to possibly end up in a conversation that is going to make you uncomfortable or take time to deal with. The payoff in sharing and getting involved in these sorts of conversations builds rapport, relationships, and trust. If you choose to cut the conversation short and move on with your agenda, you risk creating an unsafe environment for the interviewee. You will not build rapport and may actually end up damaging the relationship. People feel bad when you blow them off and don’t listen to them.

Because you called the meeting, you are the leader of the meeting and your attitude and openness matters.

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