Are Fair Audits A Pipe Dream?

14 Jun 2024

Navigate Food Safety Solutions

Are Fair Audits A Pipe Dream?

To cut right to the chase, I firmly believe achieving fair audits is not a pipe dream. I've seen enough fair audits to confidently say they’re possible. However, I've also witnessed a significant number of unfair audits, which makes people understandably skeptical about the possibility of achieving fairness during audits.

Understanding the Problem: Evidence of Unfair Audits

At Navigate, we're committed to making changes in the certification industry. We've been actively engaging with all levels of stakeholders—from manufacturers at both plant and corporate levels to auditors, certification bodies and even certification program owners. Our perspective is unique because we don’t produce food and we aren’t part of the certification process; we’re observers, which gives us a distinct and practical viewpoint.

We’ve heard countless personal observations and stories of discontent from those who have faced unfair audits - both from auditors' and auditees' perspectives. We’ve also seen the systemic forces at play in the certification industry that contribute to unfairness during audits.

Considering these factors, it’s easy to see that fair audits are a global issue, affecting the entire industry, and need to be openly discussed to find solutions.

Treating Certification Bodies and Auditors as Service Providers

The first step in ensuring fair audits is for manufacturers to start viewing certification bodies and auditors as service providers, similar to managing a maintenance contractor or a pest control company. This perspective shifts the power dynamics, enabling manufacturers to manage their auditors more effectively.

Trust should not be given blindly. We’ve become overly fixated on obtaining certificates, sometimes tolerating unacceptable behaviours to get them. While certificates are essential for market access and building trust, there’s no reason why we can't demand fairness along with them.

Here are some practical steps to help you get started:

  1. Clarify Expectations: Define what you expect from the audit beyond the mere certificate. This involves understanding your needs and drafting a specification document for your certification body.

  2. Train Your Team: Educate your team on acceptable behaviours from auditors, helping them recognize abuses of power, and knowing how to respond.

  3. Rewrite Non-Conformances: Ensure that non-conformances are fact-based and that all context is included. For example, if three documents are uncontrolled out of 200 in total, this should be noted to put the finding in perspective.

  4. Professionalism and Misuse of Authority: Auditor behaviour should be professional. Instances of unprofessional behaviour or misuse of authority should be documented and addressed, possibly even walking the auditor out if necessary.

  5. Evaluate and Provide Feedback: Consistently evaluate your auditor's performance, provide feedback to the certification body, and escalate issues if needed.

Recognizing Bad Auditor Behavior

Bad auditor behaviour during audits is unfortunately common. Whether it’s unrealistic expectations, dismissing evidence, or simply wasting time, many of you have likely experienced this firsthand. It’s crucial to recognize these behaviours, name them, and develop a shared language around fairness to effectively address them.

Auditors must act professionally. Simple unprofessional behaviours like playing on phones or taking long personal calls are annoying but manageable. However, misuse of authority, like threatening to find more issues unless a non-conformance is accepted, must be addressed promptly. De-escalate situations by talking with the auditor or their boss, and if necessary, you have the right to ask the auditor to leave if they persist in their unprofessional behaviour.

We also need to recognize that certification is a systematic process, as this helps us identify patterns and forces driving unfairness. Auditors face pressures from above, like nitpicking from technical reviewers or accreditation bodies. Understanding these challenges can help us bring fairness back into the system.

Taking Action Against Unfair Practices

When faced with unfair audit practices, it’s essential to act. Evaluate individual auditor performance as well as your certification body’s performance. Use specified criteria like fairness and professionalism. Provide constructive feedback to them, and if necessary, to the certification program owner as well. This continuous feedback loop is essential for driving improvements.

Now, I want to hear your thoughts and questions on this vital topic. Let’s open up the conversation and realize that fairness in audits is not just a dream—it’s achievable.