Pressure from within companies on internal auditors to go easy on their audits remains extensive and pervasive, according to new research.

The report, released Tuesday by the Institute of Internal Auditors’ Research Foundation during the IIA’s General Audit Management conference in Las Vegas, found political pressures threatening the objectivity of internal auditors. The pressures can come in many forms, including overt physical threats or threats of being fired, while others are more subtle, such as cuts in internal audit staff and budgets.

The IIA surveyed 500 chief audit executives and found rampant use of coercion against internal auditors. The findings indicated that 54.7 percent of chief internal audit executives polled were directed to omit or modify an important audit finding at least once, while 49.0 percent were directed to not perform audit work in high-risk areas, and 31.5 percent were directed to work in low-risk areas so an executive could investigate or retaliate against another individual.

The book-length report, “The Politics of Internal Auditing,” aims to provide internal auditors with the tactics and knowledge necessary to push back on political intrusion into their jobs. It includes lessons learned from a series of case studies based on experiences shared by the audit executives who were interviewed. In addition, the report provides insight into recognizing, dealing with, and managing political pressure.

The report was co-authored by Deloitte & Touche partner and former IIA global chairman Patricia K. Miller and University of Wisconsin professor emeritus Larry Rittenberg.

“Regarding the sources of political pressure, we found it came from all parts of the organization,” said Rittenberg during a conference call with reporters Tuesday. “It included CEOs and operational management, and many times it was personal. We were really surprised by the extent that people reported that they had been asked to either omit or change a finding. Fifty-five percent of those people who were surveyed were under that kind of pressure. We really could not sort out just one individual function where most of the pressure came from.”

The SEC has been offering increased incentives for corporate whistleblowers to report on financial skullduggery, but the audit executives interviewed by the researchers preferred to go through internal channels to report their findings.

“I can’t think of anybody we interviewed that really wanted to be whistleblowers,” said Rittenberg. “What they wanted was effective governance in the organization. There were some case studies in our research report where some issues had to become public, but they worked through the governance structure of the organization, through the audit committee and the board, particularly if this involved actions of the CEO. But uniformly the internal auditors we talked to wanted to enhance the quality of governance and wanted to make sure governance worked, rather than trying to go outside of those normal roles. We saw some where issues came out in the newspaper, but that was not under a whistleblower function.”

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