Tailoring Difficult Conversations

We CFE’s and forensic accountants, like other investigative professionals, are often called upon to be the bearers of bad news; it just goes with the territory.  CFE’s and forensic accountants are somewhat unique, however, in that, since fraud is ubiquitous, we’re called upon to communicate negative messages to such a diverse range of client types; today the chairman of an audit committee, tomorrow a corporate counsel, the day after that an estranged wife whose spouse has run off after looting the family business.

If there is anything worse than getting bad news, it may be delivering it. No one relishes the awkward, difficult, anxiety-producing exercise of relaying messages that may hurt, humiliate, or upset someone with whom the deliverer has a professional relationship. And, what’s more,  it often proves a thankless task. This was recognized in a Greek proverb almost 2,500 years ago, “Nobody loves the messenger who brings bad news.”

Physicians, who are sometimes required to deliver worse news than most CFE’s ever will, often engage in many hours of classwork and practical experience studying and role-playing how to have difficult conversations with patients and their families They know that the message itself, may be devastating but how they deliver it can help the patient and his or her family begin to process even the most painful facts.   CFE’s are in the fortunate position of typically not having to deliver news that is quite so shattering.  Nevertheless, there is no question that certain investigative results can be extremely difficult to convey and to receive.  The ACFE tells us that learning how to prepare for and deliver such messages can create not only a a better investigator but facilitate a better investigative outcome.

Preparation to deliver difficult investigative results should begin well in advance, even before there is such a result to deliver. If the first time an investigator has a genuine interaction with the client is to confirm the existence of a fraud, that fact in itself constitutes a problem.  On the other hand, if the investigator has invested time in building a relationship before that difficult meeting takes place, the intent and motivations of both parties to the interaction are much better mutually understood. Continuous communication via weekly updates to clients from the moment irregularities are noted by examination is vital.

However, despite best efforts in building relationships and staying in regular contact with clients, some meetings will involve conveying difficult news. In those cases, preparation is critical to accomplishing objectives while dealing with any resultant fallout.  In such cases, the ACFE recommends focusing on investigative process as well as on content. Process is professionally performing the work, self-preparation for delivering the message, explaining the conclusions in meaningful and realistic ways, and for anticipating the consequences and possible response of the person receiving the message. Content is having the right data and valid conclusions so  the message is correct and complete.

Self-preparation involves considering the type of person who is receiving the difficult message and in determining the best approach for communicating it. Some people want to hear the bottom line first and the supporting information after that; others want to see a methodical building of the case item by item, with the conclusion at the end. Some are best appealed to via logic; others need a more empathetic delivery. Discussions guided by the appropriate approach are more likely to be productive. Put as much effort as possible into getting to know your client since personality tends to drive how he or she wants to receive information, interact with others, and, in turn, values things and people. When there is critical investigative information that has to be understood and accepted, seasoned examiners consider delivery tailored specifically to the client to be paramount.

Once the ground work has been laid, it’s time to have the discussion. It’s important, regarding the identified fraud, to remember to …

–Seek opportunities to balance the discussion by recognizing the client’s processes that are working well as well as those that have apparently failed;

–Offer to help or ask how you can help to address the specific issues raised in the discussion;

–Make it clear that you understand the client’s challenges. Be precise and factual in describing the causes of the identified irregularity;

–Maintain open body language. Avoid crossing your arms, don’t place your hands over your mouth or on your face, and keep your palms facing each other or slightly upwards instead of downwards. Don’t lean forward as this appears extra aggressive. Breathe deeply and evenly. If possible, mimic the body language of the message recipient, if the recipient is remaining calm. If the recipient begins to show signs of defensiveness or strong aggression, and your efforts to calm
the situation are not successful, you might suggest a follow-up meeting after both of you have digested what was said and to consider mutually acceptable options to move forward.

–Present the bottom-line message three times in different ways so your listener has time to absorb it.

–Let the client vent if he or she wishes. The ACFE warns against a tendency to interrupt the client’s remarks of explanation or sometimes of denial; “we don’t hire people who would do something like that!” Allowing the client time to vent frees him or her to get down to business moving afterward.

–Focus on problems with the process as well as on the actions of the suspect(s) to build context for the fraud scenario.

–Always demonstrate empathy. Take time to think about what’s going through your hearer’s mind and help him or her think through the alleged scenario and how it occurred, what’s going to happen next with the investigation, and how the range of issues raised by the investigation might be resolved.

Delivering difficult information is a minefield, and there are ample opportunities to take a wrong step and see explosive results. Emotional intelligence, understanding how to read people and relate to them, is vital in delivering difficult messages effectively. This is not an innate trait for many people, and it is a difficult one to learn, as are many of the other so-called soft skills. Yet they can be critical to the successful practice of fraud examination. Examiners rarely get in trouble over their technical skills because such skills are generally easier for them to master.  Examiners tend to get in trouble over insufficient soft skills. College degrees and professional certifications are all aimed at the technical skills. Sadly, very little is done on the front end to help examiners with the equally critical soft skills which only arise after the experience of actual practice.  For that reason, watching a mentor deliver difficult messages or deal with emotional people is also an effective way to absorb good practices. ACFE training utilizes the role-playing of potentially troublesome presentations to a friendly group (say, the investigative staff) as another way to exercise one’s skills.

Delivering bad news is largely a matter of practice and experience, and it’s not something CFEs and forensic accountants have the choice to avoid. At the end of the day, examiners need to deliver our news verbally and in writing and to facilitate our clients understanding of it. The underlying objective is to ensure that the fact of the alleged fraud is adequately identified, reported and addressed, and that the associated risk is understood and effectively mitigated.

Comments are closed.