How to Audit (Part 1): Insider Questions

The audit profession is easily misunderstood and unjustly feared. The “How to Audit” series aims to give an insight into the world of audit while abiding by professional, legal and ethical standards.

Picture the scene: You are at a party and meet someone new. You ask for their name, which is pointless because you forget it instantly. You move onto the next question: “Where do you work?”. Fortunately for you, the person is not unemployed but does say that they are an auditor.

Suddenly, you have no intelligent follow up questions, and are struggling not to make a joke about calculators. You force yourself a polite smile and comment that it is a “nice” job. However, you actually end up communicating that you think the other person is as interesting as beige. Talking stops and you both separate and get on with the rest of your lives.

This is where you need “insider questions”. Every profession has its own vocabulary, key concepts and idiosyncrasies. Learning a few key questions will make you sound intelligent and have great conversation. However, use insider questions sparingly before you are discovered to be a fraud. Do move the conversation on to mutually interesting topics, such as the weather.

The insider questions for auditors

1) Busy season – Auditors will do a great deal of their work from January to April, often without holiday. This is because audits are conducted after the end of the financial year. This is 31 December for most companies. Mentioning these two words to an auditor will either get them talking enthusiastically or crying endlessly – be prepared.

2) Exams – This is a classic question. Every auditor has gone / is going through exam trauma. Myriad questions can be asked: Which institute?; How many exams they have passed so far?; How many exams left?; How many attempts before getting fired?; Which calculator they use in an exam?

Be sure to mention that you couldn’t work and study full time and that they are making the noblest of sacrifices.

3) Longest hours worked – Every auditor will have their personal story of the nightmare client with the 100 hour week in a tiny conference room that smelled a bit. These are the scars of audit and are worn as badges of honour. Do ask an auditor about their worst job.

4) Funny audit room moments – Cramped conference rooms, long hours, stress and green pens have a strange effect on the auditor’s brain.

5) Cool clients – Not all clients are widget manufacturers. There are interesting audit clients. Just think, for every chocolate factory and theme park there is an auditor having fun.


Pens – the key to audit. Photo taken by atomicShed

Questions to be avoided

Certain questions will annoy the auditor. Use these with care:

1) Jokes about counting beans – This instantly shows your ignorance of what auditors actually do. Bean counters are actually “mere” bookkeepers. Audit is more interesting than that. We check that the annual bean report is correct in terms of number, size, type and weight. And only the larger beans are checked, the small beans are ignored.

2) Asking for confidential information – This is illegal. However, if the auditor acquiesces to you “well-intentioned” joke then immediately phone the Metropolitan Police on 0300 123 1212. Make sure you take a photograph and then run to the nearest safe house until the danger has passed.  

3) Mentioning the tax year – There is merit in knowing that the personal tax year runs until 05 April. However, this date is irrelevant to auditors because they are only concerned with companies. If you try to work this date into a conversation the auditor will start a long and uninteresting ramble on the meaninglessness of 05 April.

4) Posing maths questions – Friends have yelled a series of numbers at me and expected rapid mental arithmetic/calculus. This is a no-win situation for the auditor. Either we’ll get it correct and it is nothing special or get it wrong and look incompetent. Reality is that these days, auditors rely calculators and Excel spreadsheets, even mental calculations are double-checked using a calculator. 

5) Why audit? – Auditing is not a traditional childhood aspiration. This question might expose a graduate’s lack of imagination in choosing a career or a personal desire for a stable income. However, numbers are the great desire for some, but would that be admitted in public?

Do insider questions work?

Insider questions are useful. Last week, I tested out some over dinner with 11 junior doctors and a dentist. I asked questions about the hours and interesting/dangerous patients. After a while, I did try to move the conversation beyond work by asking about non-work activities.

This is important to avoid being exposed as a fraud. But more importantly, no-one really wants to talk so much about work. It’s a Western cultural quirk that the second question we ask is: “where do you work?”. We define ourselves by our work but it is not where our passions lie.

Sadly, the reply to the question was: “I don’t have any spare time”.

The insider questions idea is taken from “How to Talk to Anyone” by Leil Lowndes.

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