How to Prepare for Compliance Audits
So you’ve committed to an audit. Your customers were asking, or maybe a new regulation came into effect that your organization is now subject to—whatever the reason was, you’ve got to get audited because your audit team is confirmed.
Given that Schellman’s been in this business, we get it—nobody likes a compliance audit. But they do serve a necessary purpose, and you’re going to come out the other side of yours in much better shape. After all, if an organization out there is lacking in its adherence to global compliance regulations, there could be serious fallout. Customers may lose trust. Your company’s reputation could be damaged, and worse—lawsuits and fines can do significant financial damage.
And though you’re taking the steps necessary to avoid all that, there are still benefits to having an independent auditor verify your hard work. An independent audit can serve as that impartial third party to validate the controls you have put in place. Plus, there are also ways to ease this upcoming additional workload—ways you can prepare.
As the auditors that work with your internal teams to get this done, we’re going to provide 5 tips that can help internal compliance teams get ready to work with external auditors. Now that you’re invested, read on to find out how you can make sure this process is as easy and worthwhile as possible.
5 Ways Compliance Leaders Can Prepare for Assessments
One of the biggest things that can affect your audit experience is proactively changing the way you think about audits. Yes, they cost money. Yes, they cost your people and other resources valuable time. But they also represent an important opportunity to refine the way your company operates. You’ll gain useful insight that could help you to increase revenue, cut costs and better manage risk.
One of the most important things you can do first is to change your mindset and that of your team regarding audits. But here are 5 more things you can do to help streamline your audit process.
1. Understand Your Industry As Well As What You’re Up Against.
There are many different kinds of compliance audits, and depending on your industry or the type of data you process for customers, you might need more than one compliance audit. Common regulations include:
- The Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
- Gramm-Leach Bliley Act (GLBA)
- The Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA)
- Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS)
- General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
- Health Information Trust Alliance (HITRUST)
You might be undergoing a specific audit now, but there may be other regulations or legislations that apply to you as well that are less obvious. While you should definitely gain an understanding of whether your company is up to date in its compliance with each of them (and proceed accordingly if not), it’s especially prudent to familiarize yourself with the standard you’re about to be evaluated against.
2. Know Your Network and Have an Audit Trail to Support It.
Understanding the key systems involved in your company’s infrastructure and the critical systems necessary to provide services to your customers is a must before any audit. Additionally, the type of data you process, store, or transmit will play an especially critical role in determining which regulations apply to your organization.
To achieve compliance, it’ll help to get organized—establish an understanding of the key systems and type of data within your environment:
- Create data flow charts for each key business process to ensure you—and your independent assessor—understand how information is shared and protected within your company’s network.
- Ensure security policies and processes (like data retention and document control) are documented.
All documentation should be completed as defined by the relevant standard and should be kept in a centralized location. If your assessors are running around trying to track down evidence, that slows down your process as a whole.
(It’s good to get into the habit of constantly documenting, especially in the event of significant changes in your environment. The saying “write what you do and do what you write” wasn’t coined regarding compliance audits, but it certainly applies.)
3. Have a Game Plan In Place.
Your game plan should be three-fold considerations:
- Your auditors will need to come in and speak with key stakeholders or subject matter experts—this may be quite a list. Ensure you block their calendars so that they’re available for your auditors.
- Speaking of your independent assessors, if they are not performing a remote audit, they’ll need somewhere to work when they arrive on-premises. That also applies to any data center walkthroughs, etc.
- We mentioned evidence before, and you should have ready copies of all internal documentation supporting compliance, including reports, policies, procedures, testing reports, previous audit reports, and even meeting minutes.
- Your auditors should provide a detailed listing of what they need. It’s helpful to organize the evidence in accordance with the auditor listing so your auditors spend less time trying to find what they requested.
- Try to provide more evidence than the minimum required so your assessors won't need to continually ask for more materials to examine.
- If any compliance issues are detected in your audit, you’ll want a plan in place to correct them — fast. Know ahead of time how you will prioritize, manage, delegate, and execute resolution.
- To that end, make sure that executive management is on board with correcting any issues detected. The tone at the top will set the stage for how others act in the organization.
All these efforts you take won’t just be a one-off for this singular audit—most of these tips will also serve the requirements for continuous improvements in your organization’s adherence to regulatory guidelines.
4. Communicate Early With Your Auditing Firm
You know they’re coming, so it’s time to be forthcoming about the needs of your company. Opening up conversations with your assessors early about the uniqueness of your organization—including any recent changes—will help your chosen firm plan better for your audit kickoff meeting. You should also forewarn them about how to properly field any difficulties that may arise during the process and inhibit their ability to reach key progress points.
The only thing worse than an audit is one that seems to last forever, but communicating with your external team early and clearly will do wonders to avoid that.
5. Review Past Audits.
It may be that while your organization has been through an audit before, some personnel that has come aboard since have not. Regardless, it’s important to review past results of audits and resolve any exceptions or gaps. (It’s also required that you do so.)
Previous compliance issues that repeatedly go unresolved indicate that the controls may not be functioning as intended or by the correct department. Identify these recurrent issues and figure out why they continually reappear to create a smoother audit next time around.
Next Steps for Your Upcoming Audit
Painstaking as they may seem, audits provide the opportunity to understand your organization and rectify issues before they become larger problems. And it is possible to make the experience less “agonizing,” as you’ve just learned—these tips will not only lessen that traditional feeling of dread but they’ll also help your organization prepare thoroughly for an audit.
Because with this kind of proper foresight and planning, your audit won’t be arduous—instead, what might’ve started as a customer request will become a useful tool that’ll yield invaluable insight into how your company can improve operations to strengthen your bottom line, fortify trust and reputation, avoid costly security gaps, and compete in today’s increasingly regulated marketplace with confidence.
But you don’t have to stop here. Check out our other content that may shed light on other ways you can improve your audit experience:
Schellman is a leading provider of attestation and compliance services. We are the only company in the world that is a CPA firm, a globally licensed PCI Qualified Security Assessor, an ISO Certification Body, HITRUST CSF Assessor, a FedRAMP 3PAO, and most recently, an APEC Accountability Agent. Renowned for expertise tempered by practical experience, Schellman's professionals provide superior client service balanced by steadfast independence. Our approach builds successful, long-term relationships and allows our clients to achieve multiple compliance objectives through a single third-party assessor.