Our Dangerous Auditing Culture

Our Dangerous Auditing Culture

David W. Hegg

Back in the mid 80’s I worked in the marketing department of a banking institution in Washington state. My job took me to several Western states training the local branch personnel in our new products and services. In the evening, I often dined with branch staff, and our conversations would range from business to hobbies, and life in general. But a certain subject always came up. They couldn’t wait to tell me how much they hated it when the auditors came around.

Every so often, the team of internal auditors would show up at a branch, set up shop in the conference room, and spend several days looking in every drawer, and every file, with a single purpose: to find audit exceptions! Their entire purpose was to find, note, record, and then report every infraction of the myriad rules by which financial institutions were managed. Sadly, the auditors loved their job, and pursued their task with great zeal. On the other hand, the local employees despised the auditors.

Turns out, those who find great joy in looking for, finding, and even at times, fabricating the mistakes of others rarely are appreciated. At least that’s how it used to be. But when we look around today, it is apparent things have changed. Apparently, sifting through every situation and proclamation with a fine-tooth comb to find something to label outrageous and unacceptable is fast becoming our national pastime. 

Have you noticed? Those in the public eye are perpetually being audited. Reporters, bloggers, and the ever-present Facebook posters apparently have nothing better to do than rip those they dislike for something they said, should have said, didn’t say, said too late, or were erroneously said to say. And the rest of us can hardly wait for these social auditors to scare up the next shocking revelation.

Even worse is the price we are paying for having nurtured such an auditing culture. How far has it gone? Just this week ESPN dismissed a college football commentator for having a name that some found offensive. In the rush to expunge our country of every Confederate image, this poor man - named Robert Lee – was audited and found to be guilty of bearing the same moniker as the famous Confederate commander. Consequently, he was taken off the roster.

Okay, I’ll say it. That is just plain stupid, idiotic, and quite frankly, un-American. It is prejudice of the most outrageous kind. But actually, we should have seen it coming. The auditing culture we have allowed to become so pervasive is a monster that must be fed. And when the supply of real atrocities runs dry, the public appetite for all things salacious and shocking forces the professional auditors to manufacture frenzy where none exists.

And, while I wish the practice of malicious auditing was contained within the confines of national and social media, the truth is this pernicious ethic of nasty nitpicking has infused itself into the very fabric of our neighborhoods, offices, and families. We’ve become a society addicted to finding fault in everything. We love pointing out everything we think is wrong, especially if we can make a case for being personally offended.

But where has this gotten us? Are we happier? more united? less angry? Not by a long shot. Are we a more careful society, more focused on essentials, and able to enjoy the beauty of life? Nope. We have turned ourselves into a society of cynics whose hunger to hear about the offensive and outrageous is so ravenous we will feast on anything the auditors serve up, even if it is ridiculous.

In the banking world, the audit function is necessary and essential. It is a line of defense, protecting both the institution and its customers, while itself being held accountable to specific protocols. In a very real sense, auditors perform a true service, but only when they stay within the rules prescribed for them.

But the auditing going on in our public discourse today knows no protocol. The social auditors have no rules, no set of ethics, no boundaries, no guardrails, and worse, no accountability. They cast dangerous aspersions around like confetti little caring about the pain they have inflicted, often wrongly.

I know what you’re thinking. Here I am writing against auditing while actually auditing this auditing scourge that has invaded our country. Yep, you got me. My bad. I guess the horrible disease of shaming the faults of others is much more contagious than I thought.