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Saturday, 28 June 2014

Turbulent Encounters - Reflections of a Food Safety Auditor

Instead of feeling the pressure to COMPLY with all of the associated ANIMOSITIES, the industry should be celebrating the success of our COMMITMENT as FRIENDLY COLLABORATORS in 
the food safety and quality assurance fight. 

As veteran food safety auditors may attest, things can get a bit tense during some audits. Understandably, some encounters are caused by the auditors where there is a haughty attitude or an auditor power complex. Some auditors have been known to think or even make such statements as: “I am the auditor, therefore what I say is law”. Embarrassing situations also arise in some instances because of impressions left by previous auditors or regulatory inspectors. Examples of embarrassing situations include those times when auditors are confronted with protests like: “The previous auditor or inspector did not think it was a problem, why do you see it as an issue?”

All turbulent encounters are, of course, not caused by auditors. In other situations, audited parties purport to have adequate knowledge of the subject matter under review and insist on pointing out the inconsistencies of audit requirements. Meanwhile, their understanding of the reasons behind the requirements is short of what it ought to be. Have you ever been embarrassed because of someone else’s slackness or shortcoming? If and as you continue in the auditing business, you will encounter situations of open or concealed antagonism and embarrassing situations that you may or may not have caused. More likely than otherwise, forcibly imposed audit systems or arrangements inherently cause antagonism between the auditors and the audited parties. Even the audit requirements, in many cases, are written in an enforcement language that some audited parties perceive to be intimidating and antagonistic. 

During one of my recent audits, things certainly got tense even before the audit started. I was able to diffuse the situation but not before getting an earful of complaints. The business owner/manager unequivocally informed me that I was part of a conspiracy that was working against small businesses to close them down and make room for "big monopolies". I had conducted audits at this facility in the past under more friendly circumstances but this was clearly an angry day for the owner. As far as he was concerned, external audits were "menaces" that only caused unwarranted disruptions to his business. He felt targeted by the government and its big business cohorts who were sending auditors like me to waste his time and torment him with "make-work audit requirements".

What can an auditor do but remain calm in these kinds of situations? I remained determined during this encounter to refocus his attention on the real enemy and the real goals of food safety. This worked to calm him down, although he felt fully capable of ensuring the safety and quality of his products without my help. He eventually became friendly enough in the course of the audit interaction to offer me water. I agreed to take bottled water with a tamper proof seal. One can never be too careful in such situations.

Is it possible for the industry to have auditing arrangements that are not forcibly imposed, non-antagonistic and non-intimidating? Can audit requirements be written in advisory rather than threatening or intimidating enforcement language? My answer to both questions is yes. With the causes of antagonism known and with the deliberate development of systems that inherently diffuse antagonism, Turbulent encounters can be substantially reduced if not eliminated. Arrangements or setups and the use of friendly language options for communicating requirements are possible.

Likely Causes and Diffusers of Turbulence

My recent encounter and several similar incidents led me to consider the likely causes of antagonism in external audit situations. I also considered what setups and conditions are likely to diffuse antagonism. I came up with these comparative lists:

Antagonism thrives where:
  • Desires and goals are different with differing ulterior motives
  • Different sides operate on the basis of distrust
  • Ulterior motives precede reason
  • Cat and mouse games predominate in the interactions
  • Common enemies are known but bypassed due to in-fighting among parties that should otherwise be in coalition against the real enemies
  • Good intentions are not mutual but imposed on one party by another
  • Conflicting rules and expectations form the basis for assessing acceptable practice
  • Practical realities are abandoned and replaced with theoretical impositions 
  • Parties imposing the rules are not or do not feel bound by the same rules
  • Compliance commitment and cost burden is not borne by the party imposing the rules of practice
Antagonism dies where:

  • Collaborative coalitions are formed
  • A common desire is shared without ulterior motives
  • The true enemies are recognized and assailed through collaborative strategies
  • Common goals and objectives are clearly defined and remain perpetually in focus
  • Collaboration strategies that kill antagonism replace cat and mouse games
  • Genuine cooperation replaces facades and distrust
  • Burdens and benefits are equitably shared
  • Collaborative programs include a deliberate anti-antagonism design and driving mechanisms
Avoiding turbulent audit situations is presumably the desire of the auditing community. With a high degree of professionalism on the parts of participants, looming antagonism can be foiled and prevented from causing undesirable disruptions of the audit process. However, the unyielding pressure on auditors who constantly have to deal with a systemic and ever-looming antagonism is unfair. For auditors and audited parties to be constrained because of a looming systemic antagonism with the potential of flaring up at any time is also detrimental to the audit process. It distracts the participants and undermines the real (not the presumed) effectiveness of audits.  This does not call for simply finding a happy middle ground with any of the antagonism-causing factors or pre-conditions. That would be a futile pursuit.  It takes the existence of only one antagonism-causing pre-condition to derail the attempt and auditor professionalism is not enough safeguard. This understanding significantly influenced the development of the Safety, Security and Quality Assurance (SSQA) program. SSQA is deliberately designed to inherently diffuse antagonism and drive collaboration. You may be involved in setups where antagonism dies or thrives. Which is it?

The industry and its affiliates (regulators, customers, consumers, all of us) can celebrate as collaborators. This is possible in a civilized world.

The industry needs: tools; not more rules, partnership; not more penalties, answers; not more antagonism.

Please feel free to share your thoughts.

Posted By Felix Amiri
Felix Amiri is the current Food Sector Chair of GCSE-Food & Health Protection

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