Dealing with Difficult, Distracting, and Disruptive Auditees

May 25th, 2015 | By | Category: Auditing

EHS Journal - People Series by Ilco

We’ve all read self-help books that describe how to deal with difficult people and handle difficult situations in the workplace. In this article, I’d like to examine some of the more difficult people I’ve encountered during environmental, health, and safety (EHS) audits and discuss options for handling these folks.


Type One: The Avoider

Mantra: “Don’t commit if you can avoid it.”

How do you spot one?

  • Feigns ignorance whenever asked an important or controversial question.
  • Tries to delegate responsibility for answering questions to others.
  • Perpetually late for opening and daily meetings.
  • Uses the phrase, “Me, you mean me?”

How do you deal with the Avoider? Mostly by being persistent. Break complex topics down into simple questions and continue pressing forward. Clarify the interviewee’s areas of responsibility and obtain information about process details where they clearly have insight. Play on the Avoider’s ego – call out good examples of strong performance and shift the dialog for a few minutes to a review of these great achievements. If the Avoider still refuses to engage, then get the names of other people who might have insight into the topic and politely move on to the next person. If the Avoider seems to be refusing to provide information because he has been told to not engage with the audit team, then you might need to enlist the assistance of the facility EHS lead or plant manager to help overcome the interviewee’s reluctance to speak. A quick conversation by someone in authority can often help turn an Avoider into an Advocate.


Type Two: The Parrot 

Mantra: “If I heard it, it’s a fact. I’ll take credit for things that sound good and repeat them.”

How do you spot one?

  • Constantly reports things he heard as gospel without checking to ensure that the statements were true.
  • Quickly retracts statements or corrects assertions if important colleagues or managers disagree.
  • Echoes responses made by others without fully understanding the meaning of the answer or providing relevant additional information.
  • Likes to recite irrelevant facts and figures.
  • Can act as a “poser” at times by pontificating about the “old times” and his “experience.”

How do you deal with the Parrot? By helping him understand and evaluate the words that he’s saying. Most Parrots are sociable people who are willing to discuss pretty much any topic. If you repeat the Parrot’s statement and systematically pick it apart, asking for clarification and evidence, you can usually get to the point where the Parrot realizes that he needs to stop inventing answers and needs to report something that’s closer to the truth. By building a working partnership with the Parrot, you can often have a productive interview on the topic at hand and also gain insight into other areas that might be interesting to investigate.


Type Three: The Tattler

Mantra: “I’ll make sure everyone knows your mistakes and will pick apart your audit process.”

How do you spot one?

  • Blames his shortcomings on others.
  • Quickly points out the mistakes of colleagues and contractors and makes a big deal out of these deficiencies.
  • Constantly runs to management with complaints and “critical issues” that aren’t getting proper attention.
  • Undermines the audit process by complaining about auditor behavior, auditor comments, and unjust findings.
  • Often says, “I told you so.”

How do you deal with the Tattler? Mostly by patiently listening to one or two rants, acknowledging that the Tattler might have a legitimate issue, and then turning the discussion back to the subject at hand. Politely interrupt the Tattler if the discussion seems to be straying into the territory of a character assassination of a particular person, general complaining about poor management performance, or irrelevant war stories. Keep the discussion on track, ask appropriate follow-up questions, and ask for evidence to back up assertions. Do not engage in gossip with the Tattler, this is unprofessional and wastes valuable audit time. As always, verify everything the Tattler tells you; some of his insights and beliefs will prove to be true, while others will be little more than unsubstantiated rumors.


Type Four: The Avenger

Mantra: “I’ll get you back!”

How do you spot one?

  • Has an irrational belief that his worth as a human being is tied to the number of audit findings.
  • Continues to argue “unjust” findings from the last three audits conducted at the facility.
  • Challenges all new findings and is willing to fight to the death to keep them out of the audit report.
  • Actively seeks to delay or derail the audit by withholding information, engaging in prolonged discussions and arguments, and interrupting the auditors with new information about closed issues.
  • Warns his direct reports that they better not have any findings.
  • Feels that audits have winners and losers and embarrassing the audit team is a key to victory.

How do you deal with the Avenger? Bring plenty of patience. As an auditor, especially a lead auditor, you’ll need to be at the top of your game when dealing with this personality type. Avengers are often aggressive, rude, and provocative. You need to be diplomatic, patient, wise, and firm, and you need to do this without becoming emotional. When dealing with an Avenger, you will often need to assert your authority as the auditor or lead auditor, but pick your battles carefully, you don’t have time to argue every situation, and you can’t afford to let your personal anger erupt into an open brawl, which is exactly what the Avenger wants.

When dealing with an Avenger, gather all of the evidence that you need to form a professional opinion. Present the evidence for and against your opinion and explain your interpretation. Consider alternative explanations and new evidence, but once you’ve made a final decision, stick to that decision and resist attempts to reopen the discussion if you are clearly in the right. But do all of this very diplomatically.


About the Author

Bill Qualls is a Certified Professional Environmental Auditor with more than 25 years of experience directing and managing hundreds of EHS audits at manufacturing facilities in more than 15 countries. In addition, Bill developed and implemented a 3rd party audit program that reviews annually over 100 tolling sites, consignments, warehouses, and waste treatment/disposal facilities.  He works in the chemical industry and is the President of the board of directors of the Auditing Roundtable. He is also on the Board of Governors of the local Institute of Internal Auditors.


Other Articles by Bill Qualls in the EHS Journal

Auditing: 20 Signs of Non-collaboration


Graphical Image: People Series by Ilco, Izmir, Turkey.


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One Comment to “Dealing with Difficult, Distracting, and Disruptive Auditees”

  1. Lindsey Brutus says:

    This was such a great article, thank you! As a new auditor, I find that hiring managers typically ask how I would deal with a difficult auditee. With the guidance of this article, I will be able to answer that question more effectively.

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