In her book Extraordinary Circumstances: The Journey of a Corporate Whistleblower, Cynthia Cooper, WorldCom Inc.’s chief audit executive, details the discovery of a fraud that she was able to unravel, in large part, due to her interviewing skills. At a critical point in Cooper’s investigation, Buddy Yates, WorldCom’s general director of accounting, attempted to dodge questions about fraudulent accounting entries. Undaunted, Cooper immediately recognized the evasive answers and searched for a clearer explanation. Her polished interviewing skills are one of the principal reasons she was able to uncover the fraud at Worldcom.
External auditors, internal auditors, and many other practicing accountants, including forensic accountants, face situations similar to Cooper’s: Interviewees evade answering a question rather than give an unequivocal answer. Most entry-level accountants and auditors would benefit by gaining a deeper understanding of why interviewees evade questions, learning common tactics interviewees use to avoid questions, and discovering methods to get answers when interviewees dodge questions.
REASONS PEOPLE AVOID QUESTIONS
Although evading a question could certainly indicate that someone is concealing fraud, many people avoid questions for other, innocuous reasons. Interviewees may avoid answering a question because they do not know the answer and, feeling embarrassed, want to avoid appearing unqualified. Others evade questions when they feel that their answer may have negative repercussions on their reputation, such as in cases where they have made a mistake.
In other cases, an interviewer may believe that an interviewee is avoiding a question when the person simply did not fully understand the question or clearly explain the answer. Whatever the reason for evading questions, there are strategies that can help interviewers identify whether someone is evading a question and address the interviewee’s tactic.
HOW PEOPLE AVOID QUESTIONS AND WHAT TO DO ABOUT IT
People evade questions in a number of ways, and an interviewer’s response should vary with the type of tactic used. To illustrate, imagine that an auditor discovers that her client (or company) booked two large sales transactions on the last day of the accounting year. When the auditor cannot find any supporting documentation for the transactions (for example, invoices), she decides to ask the controller for more information. Below, we detail some of the techniques the controller might use to avoid the auditor’s question as well as appropriate responses from the auditor.
Attacking the interviewer. “You have been in my office three times today already, and I don’t have time to do your job for you.” In this approach, the respondent attacks the competence, experience or diligence of the person asking the question. By responding this way, the interviewee shifts attention from the issue at hand by trying to intimidate the auditor. The seemingly disgruntled respondent not only discourages any immediate follow-up questions, but also discourages any future questions.
An attacked interviewer will likely have a “fight or flight” instinct to either angrily lash back at the respondent or permanently shy away from the question. Either response, however, would be a mistake. An effective interviewer recognizes the need to respond in a way that is tactful yet bold.
For example, if the auditor does not need an immediate answer to her question, she might respond, “I understand how important your time is, but I need more information from you about these transactions. I have talked with several members of your staff, and they have all referred me back to you. May I schedule a time to come back this afternoon to talk to you about these transactions?” With this response, the auditor is tactful and respectful, yet bold and credible.
Attacking the question. “Who cares about the supporting documentation? Those two transactions alone couldn’t possibly be material.” Using this approach, the interviewee claims that the question is irrelevant or objectionable. By attacking the question, the respondent can avoid giving a potentially damaging answer.
To respond to this evasion tactic, the interviewer needs to be an “expert” on the question at hand and explain why the question is relevant and important. In our example, the auditor might respond, “As I’ve considered these particular transactions and the impact they have on the audit, I feel confident that they are material to the audit and that we will need supporting documentation about these transactions.”
Diverting the question. “Your question reminds me that I needed to talk to you about our new computer system…” With this approach, the respondent sidesteps by acknowledging the question without answering it, exhausting the interviewer with a prolonged explanation that does not address the core question, or giving a broad answer without specifics. By responding in this way, the interviewee hopes to distract the interviewer with irrelevant or immaterial information.
To overcome this evasion tactic, the interviewer needs to establish clear objectives for the interview and ensure that each of those objectives has been met by the end of the interview. In our example, the auditor might consider writing down specific information that she needs about the two transactions and taking notes as she receives that information. She might say to the controller, “Those computer system issues are important, and we’ll discuss them later. However, right now, I would like to address some documentation issues before we talk about the computer system.”
Declining to answer. “I don’t know the answer to that question. I’ll work on finding the documentation for you and then get back to you” (without intending to do so). In this approach, the respondent declines to answer the question by indicating that he or she lacks the necessary knowledge or expertise to answer the question (when they really don’t), promising to “work on it” (without intending to do so), or merely refusing to answer the question. Respondents often use this tactic to delay further questions about a sensitive issue, hoping that the interviewer will forget about the inquiry.
To respond to someone who uses this tactic, the interviewer must hold the respondent accountable. If the interviewee promises to “work on it,” the interviewer should hold him or her accountable by following up on that commitment. If the interviewee claims that he or she doesn’t know the answer or simply refuses to answer, the interviewer should tactfully hold him or her accountable for the expertise or knowledge that is generally expected of someone in the interviewee’s position.
In our example, the auditor might respond, “Thank you for looking into those transactions for us. May I return tomorrow morning at 10 a.m. to ask what information you’ve found about these two transactions?”
Giving equivocal answers. “Someone from the sales department told me that they properly documented both of those transactions, but that the hard copies wouldn’t be filed using the normal protocols for some reason.” Under this approach, the interviewee is equivocal as to who is giving the message (for example, “someone from the sales department”) or as to the content of the message (for example, “for some reason”). While the interviewee seems to answer the question, their answer is overly ambiguous and consequently unreliable.
To get an unequivocal answer, the interviewer should employ two strategies. First, as mentioned before, the interviewer should plan beforehand the specific information he or she wants to acquire from the interview. Second, the interviewer should confront the interviewee for more specific answers when he or she is unable to get the specific information needed.
An interviewer can confront the interviewee in a variety of ways that vary in severity. Depending on the respondent’s cooperation, the interviewer might confront him or her directly by addressing the interviewee’s equivocation or indirectly by asking the question differently. In our example, the auditor might respond, “Was Cindy Lunt the person from sales who said the transactions were documented properly? If so, I’ll ask her about the transactions.”
In addition to the specific responses to the evasion tactics discussed above, inexperienced interviewers should keep in mind the following general tips:
Plan the interview beforehand. Polished interviewers do their research before asking questions and know what they want to accomplish during the interview.
Pay attention to the respondent’s body language. Interviewees often communicate more through their body language than through what they say.
Pay attention to your body language. Interviewees respond best to interviewers who remain calm and collected even when addressing sensitive issues.
Get help. By bringing along a trusted colleague or superior, an interviewer can add credibility to the interview; more effectively take note of the respondent’s body language; and gain an objective gauge as to whether questions are being answered satisfactorily.
Accountants will rarely face an interviewee as direct as one-time presidential hopeful Paul Tsongas, who once when asked a question is said to have responded, “That’s a good question. Let me try to evade you.” However, by understanding the reasons for and ways in which individuals dodge questions, accountants with limited experience in interviewing will be better able to respond.
External and internal auditors and other practicing accountants, including forensic accountants, may face situations where an interviewee evades a question rather than providing an unequivocal answer.
Understanding the reasons for and ways in which individuals dodge questions can help accountants and auditors with limited interviewing experience prepare for and respond to situations where an interviewee is evasive.
One common tactic that interviewees use to avoid questions is to attack the interviewer. In this situation, interviewers must be bold and credible in their response to the attack while remaining tactful and respectful.
Attacking the question is another method of evasion. The interviewer needs to be an “expert” on the question at hand and explain to the interviewee why the question is relevant and important.
A respondent may sidestep a question by acknowledging it without providing an answer. To help elicit a specific response, the interviewer should establish clear objectives for the interview and ensure that each of those objectives has been met by the end of the interview.
When a respondent declines to answer a question by indicating that he or she lacks the necessary knowledge or expertise to answer the question (when he or she really doesn’t) or promising to “work on it” (without intending to do so), the interviewer must hold the respondent accountable for the expertise or knowledge that is generally expected of someone in the interviewee’s position or by following up on an interviewee’s promise to work on getting an answer.
An interviewer should plan in advance for overly ambiguous and unreliable answers by knowing the specific information needed from the interview.
Scott Emett (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a master’s student at Brigham Young University. David A. Wood (email@example.com) is an assistant professor at Brigham Young University.
To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Loanna Overcash, senior editor, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-402-4462.
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