KnowledgeLeader Blog

Auditing Travel Stories: The Good, the Bad, and the Risky

Posted by Aspen Plummer on Mon, Jun 10, 2013 @ 02:18 PM

""In more than 20 years of experience as an auditor, I have had the good fortune to go on audit assignments and client meetings throughout the U.S. and in many countries of the world. Some trips were spectacular, landing me in the midst of great cities like New York, New Orleans and San Francisco. Others, however, put me in danger zones amidst civil war and natural disaster. If you’re a well-heeled auditor like me, you’ll appreciate the stories and advice I share in this article. If you have ever dreamed of getting that plum auditing role that includes travel, take note: it isn’t always what you imagined it to be. This article will help you understand the pros and cons of the traveling auditor’s life.

 

THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE RISKY

Among road warrior auditors, there are basically three types of trips. A spectacular one is when you get to the airport without hassle, breeze through security, get to your destination on time, perform your audit as scheduled, and then enjoy a day or two afterwards in perfect sunshine to soak in the sights and scenes at your client’s location. A bad trip is similar, except everything goes wrong — terrible traffic, flight delays, missed connections, bad weather, a complicated audit that takes twice as long to do, and no time to rest and relax. A risky trip is one that gives you something to talk about for the rest of your life. I’ve had all three types, including several of the risky ones.

Let me start by describing three challenging, potentially dangerous and (in hindsight) most pleasurable trips I have taken. The first was an assignment to audit a construction site in the northern area of Algeria. At the time of that trip, it was a country engaged in civil war between the government and various Islamic rebel groups. The government forces could not secure its regional airport, so we had to take an 18-hour boat ride across the Mediterranean Sea from the port city of Cagliari, Sardinia into the port near Skidia, Algeria.

Our boat, a former research vessel owned and used by Jacques Cousteau, would also be our evacuation boat in case fighting broke out in Algeria while we were onsite. The construction site we were auditing was in an isolated industrial zone, surrounded with razor wire and guard towers. Officers with dogs and AK-47s patrolled the area. We were transported to and from the construction site in a convoy of busses with bulletproof glass. Armed vehicles accompanied us at the front, rear and middle of our caravan.

Our housing compound was perched high on a cliff. Gated and guarded to keep everyone else out, it also kept us in. We had our own cafeteria and recreation center, as there was nowhere else to go. We also received training at the work site on what to do in case of an attack, what the fastest escape routes were, and how to reach the evacuation boat. (Note: Just as I was writing this article, anti-government terrorists stormed a gas production facility in Algeria and captured foreign workers; many of the hostages were freed but some lost their lives when Algerian armed forces stormed the facility to end the ordeal.)

My second risky assignment came in 2009, when I was asked to go to Mexico City. Our travel agency routinely issues SOS alerts to warn auditors about travel problems and potentially risky areas. A few weeks before my trip, we received an SOS warning that Mexico City was under the threat of the swine flu, with a serious viral outbreak in the city. Thousands of people were getting sick and dozens had died. Meanwhile, I had also received other alerts about kidnappings and drug cartel-related killings in other regions of Mexico. I had already booked my flight, but it didn’t look promising. I assumed someone would cancel my trip, and that remained my mindset for weeks leading up to it. However, just a few days before my scheduled departure, I received an SOS alert saying the swine flu outbreak had lessened and the alert was withdrawn. I ended up flying into Mexico City as planned, where I conducted a full day of training with no problems. I began to enjoy my stay in the financial district that night.

On the second day of training, I returned to the conference room after lunch to prepare for my afternoon session. I was alone in the room, facing the wall. Suddenly, I felt a shock wave hit me and the room began to shake. I heard the clerk at the lobby ringing a bell and yelling for everyone to evacuate. I thought it was a guerrilla attack of some kind, so I ran out the front door with the other guests. It turned out to be a 5.9 earthquake that could have damaged many historic buildings in Mexico City. I stood outside, my nerves frayed a bit and my feet quaking, as this was not what I had prepared for. Fortunately, the hotel was undamaged, and we resumed our workshop about an hour later.

My third very challenging trip was to Kuwait. Our client was a state oil company building several large projects right in the middle of former Iraqi-held territory. Living in the U.S., we are privileged to have all that we have — nice neighborhoods, running water, access to food and a sense of safety wherever we go, for the most part. Seldom do we hear someone warn, “Hey, watch where you’re going!” and mean it literally. At this job site, warnings were true statements – we had to actually pay attention to where we walked because certain areas still hid unexploded land mines. Talk about auditors tiptoeing around!

Throughout this assignment, we were under constant pressure to get the work done on time. It was May, when average temperatures are about 110 F in the Kuwaiti desert. June was our cutoff date, because the heat would soon reach 120 F and Ramadan would limit our ability to complete the audit work. This was really an assignment that fit the saying, “If you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”

This trip to Kuwait also ended with a harrowing experience. As we were being driven to the airport to depart, off in the distance I spied an enormous low-level brown cloud rolling in. A thunder storm didn’t make sense to me, given that we were in the desert. I asked our driver, who nonchalantly told me it was “just a little dust storm.” In my mind, a race to the airport between the dust storm and our van began — and I had to win. I had already been away for weeks and I was eager, if not desperate, to get home. We arrived at the airport, checked in and boarded the plane. I thought we had made it. As we taxied out to the runway, the storm hit, pelting the tarmac and the plane with tiny sand particles. The aircraft swayed and we could hear the sound of constant wind and sand hitting the plane. The cloud of sand was so thick and dark that I could not see anything out the window. It seemed impossible that our jet could take off. I sat nervously as the engines roared and, somehow, we flew right into the sand, climbing slowly above the brown cloud into dark night skies for a 14-hour plane ride back to the U.S.

TEN LESSONS FROM A ROAD WARRIOR

I don’t really consider myself a road warrior, but I’ve traveled enough to know that every trip teaches you something. And it is the challenging, potentially risky and dangerous trips that you can learn the most from. Here are some of the most important lessons that I’ve learned for auditors who must go out on the open road:

  1. Plan ahead: Study up on the location where you are going. Get a sense of its history and current events. Don’t be surprised when you arrive and discover there is a civil war or monsoon season about to start. Learn if the area is subject to floods, tsunamis, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, and other natural disasters and when they usually occur. If possible, study up on the location’s culture and learn a few words of the language. The people you meet will appreciate your effort to show them you care about their country.

  2. Get travel alerts and warnings: The U.S. State Department and many embassies and consulates issue travel alerts to warn Americans about any regions or countries where it is not safe to travel or where you need to take extra precautions. Your travel agency may also issue warnings. Subscribe to these bulletins, as they are constantly updated as necessary.

  3. Put your safety first: Make sure you understand all the procedures that are being made to ensure your safety. Question anything that seems unsafe. Be sure you know evacuation plans, egress routes and how to identify whom your allies are. Know whom you can call in an emergency and how you can reach them. From a practical point of view, if you are visiting a construction site, be sure you have your own personal protective equipment (PPE) — hard hat, steel-toed boots, safety glasses, ear plugs, respiratory apparatus, and other gear to protect your body against objects, chemicals and accidents, in case the site does not provide them.

  4. Make backup copies: Make a copy of your passport and keep it in a safe location with you as you travel. If your passport is stolen or lost, you cannot easily re-enter the U.S. Having a copy facilitates reissuance. Be sure you also have backup copies of all your airline tickets and agenda.

  5. Take care of your medical needs: Talk to your doctor about your upcoming travel to get any shots and pills needed, such as antibiotics and malaria tablets. Get a copy of your immunization history too. If you take any medications on a regular basis, get a prescription for far more than the length of your trip because you never know — your assignment may take longer than expected, or you may encounter a storm, a natural disaster or another impediment that could keep you from returning home as planned. I once went on an assignment for what everyone thought would take four weeks but it ended up requiring nine weeks. Overcompensate for your medicines; overseas pharmacies don’t have the same medications as those in the U.S. As for over-the-counter medications, bring some of the common ones that are effective for you, such as anti-diarrheal and headache medications. Finally, bring some water purification tablets if needed.

  6. Verify your insurance coverage: Be sure you have all the necessary insurance for where you are going, including medical, dental, car and life insurance. Make sure your policies are effective in other states or countries (for example, most car insurance policies are not effective in Mexico). If you use your credit card to cover insurance for car rentals, be sure of what they cover and when — many credit card car insurance policies are not valid if you rent for more than one month. Also, be sure you have any necessary insurance coverage for medical evacuation and repatriation of your body. Some countries require you to have these in case you are injured or die while on their territory.

  7. Secure your computer data: Get a loaner laptop when you travel to risky foreign countries. Laptops can be seized at customs and taken to a back room where foreign officials might copy your hard drive and try to exploit your data. Try to travel with as little data on your hard drive as possible for the assignment. Be equally careful with data on your flash drives and smart phones too.

  8. Ensure your ability to communicate: Check with your cell phone provider to ensure you have international phone access, roaming and data coverage for all countries you travel to. Be sure to understand how the roaming charges are applied, as you can end up with charges in the hundreds or thousands of dollars if your smartphone is considered to be roaming 24/7 because you have apps running in the background.

  9. Try to travel with or find a “Buddy”: I endorse the “buddy system.” Traveling with a colleague is best, but if that’s not possible, identify someone on the job site with whom you can team up in the event of an emergency.

  10. Expect anything and be prepared for everything: It is impossible to predict everything, but be prepared for as much as you can. In dangerous or risky areas, literally anything can happen. We had one colleague who was shot at while in a vehicle while at a checkpoint in Nigeria. Although he escaped unharmed, he wasn’t prepared for that situation. If you accept an assignment to travel to a risky or dangerous area, be sure you are totally comfortable with your decision and have the stamina and courage to deal with whatever may happen.

OTHER IMPORTANT ADVICE ABOUT TRAVEL

My travel experience has also provided me with a collection of little tidbits of advice I want to pass on:

  • Arrive early for your reservations – Don’t stress yourself out at the airport before or during your trip. A lot of people are not prepared, so be patient. You’ll feel better without the stress and you are less likely to get sick while traveling.

  • Become an airport security expert player – Don’t hold up the line for others. Before you reach the security checkpoint, empty everything out of your pockets — coins, phone, even paper. Remove your shoes and belt and practice taking your laptop and smart phone out of your bag quickly.

  • Mark your luggage distinctly – Make sure you claim the right bag and no one takes yours. Tie something distinctive to your bag or get a bright colored tag. Millions of people have black suitcases, so make it easy to find yours.

  • Stay above the first floor at hotels – Try to get a room on the 2nd floor or higher; first-floor rooms are more of a security risk. Women especially should ask for rooms above the first floor.

  • Get a room by the stairs – This is also a useful recommendation in case of emergencies, such as fires and earthquakes.

  • Park above the first floor in flood-prone areas – Believe it or not, some people lose their cars in parking lots during heavy rainstorms and hurricanes that flood the area.

  • Be aware of your surroundings – Don’t walk around with your head in the clouds; pay attention to the people and events going on around you. Your attentive gaze thwarts pickpockets and scammers who target unaware or distracted people whom are not paying attention to their luggage, their wallet or purse, and other belongings. Essentially, never let down your guard when you are in an area you don’t know.

  • Take a little R&R during a trip when appropriate—you deserve it! – Travel is tough, so reward yourself with some fun. Stay an extra day if you can. I’ve enjoyed a Broadway musical and Yankees game when working in New York, beautiful, white sandy beaches while on assignment in Hawaii, and great restaurants in many cities around the world.

  • Line up someone to take care of your home – You may think you will be gone only for a week or two, but if you are delayed, have someone who can pay bills for you, water your plants, collect your mail and check in on your home to ensure nothing has gone wrong.

THE FUTURE OF TRAVEL FOR AUDITORS

Auditing construction job sites or going onsite at major company operations is required of auditors. Professional auditing is expanding into many new regions of the world – especially the Middle East. In Dubai, for example, Western-style urban growth, tourism and oil money are fueling an enormous infrastructure construction boom. If you are willing to travel and take on the challenges and risks of going to these new locations, you can create an excellent career for yourself as an auditor. It helps to have specialized certifications such as Certified Construction Auditor (CCA), which is available from the National Association of Construction Auditors, or Project Management Professional (PMP), which is available from the Project Management Institute. As in many professions, having one or more areas of subject matter expertise adds great value to being an auditor.

 

About the Author:

Paul Pettit, MBA, MS, CCA, PMP, CIA, CRMA, CPEA is a Director for Protiviti’s Capital Projects & Contracts practice in Houston, TX. He has more than 20 years’ experience managing and auditing vendors and contractors around the world, including 10 years working internationally for an engineering and construction contractor.

Topics: Protiviti, information technology risk, Hot Issues, internal audit, Cross-border & Non-US issues, audit, project management, travel, audit assignments, network & internet security, Paul Pettit

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