Audits can strike a stabbing fear in the hearts of even the most redoubtable and rational individuals. Why? While professionals have pondered this phenomenon for years, this analyst believes it has not so much to do with the exposing of covert or surreptitious activities as much as there is an innate human aversion to being overly, and for a prolonged period, scrutinized—as if by the very action of scrutiny, an individual is de facto guilty of some egregious crime or error, even if they haven't done anything wrong. Heavy psychological stuff! (I told you in a past article that I'd expose you to a constellation of multidisciplinary trivia that will serve you well when you qualify to compete on Jeopardy.)
OK, so how can IT staffers—or any reasonable, hardworking, and usually sane (everything is relative) company employee—survive an audit without having to either have his/her Xanax dosage increased exponentially or become a hopeless alcoholic? (Actually, there is no harm in instructing one's spouse or partner to learn to make and serve an excellent martini.)
First, it is necessary to examine the facts and the myths—and to be able to distinguish one from the other. For example, the premise that a Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) audit or any audit is rational is false. If an audit is irrational, one can then proceed to deduce that IT managers or other line-of-business (LOB) management who, for the most part, are sensible, rational beings can devolve into veritable cretins at the prospect of an audit. Just be aware that it isn't their fault. They are driven to become so because, after all, they are responsible for running a business, and that comes with its own concomitant set of pressures and anxieties. Add an audit, and now they are conscripted to perform the impossible, Herculean task of running the business—without skipping a beat—and preparing for the audit. Oh, da horror! (Didn't you love the sock puppet from the erstwhile and defunct Pets.com?)
However, in light of the Wall Street scandals involving the heinous activities of executives in whom employees entrusted their fealty, their jobs, and their retirements, the audit has—sadly—become a necessary evil. A great person once said (actually, it was my chiropractor) that when an individual or an institution fails to govern itself, someone or some outside entity will come in and do it for them. Hence, audits.
Now that we have teased out the nuances of the predicament, what strategies and tactics can IT staffers employ to actually survive an audit? The answer is not duct tape and large sheets of plastic, although, they might help insulate you—somewhat—from the slings and arrows of an outrageous audit, but in the long run you'd just be sticking your head in the proverbial sand. Here are five foolproof (OK, so nothing is foolproof) ways to survive and perhaps emerge unscathed and victorious:
Recognize that Mr./Ms. Hyde is still Dr. Jekyll—That is, of course, if your boss wasn't Mr./Ms. Hyde to begin with. (Surviving a boss with bipolar disorder is a topic for another article.) If your immediate manager or supervisor is normally an intelligent and fair individual, it is imperative that you remain cool, calm, and collected when he/she morphs into Mr./Ms. Hyde. Why? Because he/she may demand that you perform certain activities that not only appear irrational but also may imperil the very mission of the organization. Remember, SOX is a government mandate, which means that, while the government requires publicly traded companies and their subsidiaries to have routine internal and external audits, the government, in all its infinite wisdom, does not provide a how-to guide.
For example, if the auditors request a separate report for each financial application located on a separate server, and your financial applications are on different servers, then a report will need to be generated for each server. In light of this and to move the audit along, a manager in a fit of extreme panic may order you to consolidate all the financial applications on a single server to expedite the audit process. This in effect removes the multiple-server safety net and enables a single point of failure (i.e., if the one server fails, all the financial applications crash and burn with it). It is here that an IT staffer may have to make a stand—and document it—by politely and professionally explaining to his/her deranged superior what the implications and consequences of such an act could mean and to propose alternative strategies and tactics. Mr./Ms. Hyde may throw a tantrum the likes of which a two-year-old would be envious and bellow at you until all your hair (presuming you have hair) blows away, but will likely appreciate your candor later when his/her inadvertent lapse in good judgment could have cost his/her job.
- Temper, temper, mon Capitan—Even though we are not of the "Q Continuum," which made its debut in Star Trek TNG (everything I learned in life, I did learn from Star Trek), there are ways in which you can temper and reason with your boss. The trick is to remain reasonable, which is easier said than done, but is easier for you because you are not being scrutinized like an insect under a microscope. Similar to tactic number one, don't take the ranting and raving and occasional spewing of obscenities personally. This too will pass. One strategy that can be employed a priori, especially during "down" times (I alluded to this type of strategy in my pre-summer article entitled "SMB ERP Centers of Excellence (COEs): The Undiscovered Country") is to begin documenting mission- and business-critical systems and look for potential exposures in the system topology and application landscape so that you, and hence your boss, will be better prepared for an untimely audit.
- Always look on the bright side of life—Whilst everyone in the midst of an audit experiences temporary amnesia about their life pre-audit and believes that there will never be a day of peace again, the fact is, an audit is a finite phenomenon. Sometimes pain can paradoxically lead to gain. Learning about potential system exposure points, streamlining applications for greater efficiency and less maintenance, and having to adopt better practices in application security can only strengthen the IT department and its standing in the organization. There may be a ton of work to do, but if it is handled correctly, the payoff can be big. The audit may reveal the need for a long-overdue project to finally be funded, enabling you to participate in something that is not only more interesting than, say, the grind of maintaining the set of applications ad nauseaum, but also can be career enhancing. Savvy? Remember, in this column, I do try to challenge IT staffers to improve their career opportunities and options.
- The sun will come up tomorrow—And in the meantime suck it up and deal with it. There are always benefits and burdens in any exercise. Audits are certainly no different. And there is no excuse for employees behaving badly. Take a 10-minute walk, count to 10, or take 10 deep breaths, but resist the temptation to lash out at your boss, a peer, or a subordinate or to have a public meltdown (meltdowns are better had in the privacy of your therapist's office) because you will regret it later. Trust me.
- Eating humble pie is not that bad—If in the endgame the IT department does not shine and there are problems—significant or insignificant—it is better to swallow your pride as an IT staffer and join the team in its remediation efforts as quickly and professionally as possible. Learning to dot the "i's" and cross the "t's" may be a humbling experience, but it is one you can learn and benefit from not only in your present instantiation but also when applying for another position with a future employer that could greatly benefit from your experience and remunerate you accordingly. Got it?
Remember, they who do not learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. If one audit experience takes you to the threshold of hell, try to figure out ways to prevent it the next time around. Doing so and presenting your ideas to your boss, when he/she reverts back to Dr. Jekyll, may put you on the promotion path and save you, your manager, and your peers a lot of acida or agida (you say "potato"...).