Which conflict style works best with an IRS auditor and why?

The word fear with a red cross and circle crossing out the word.

Many articles have been written regarding the five conflict management styles we use every day. Similarly, much has been written about generational differences. This article explores these five conflict management styles, considers generational differences, and overall workforce dynamics when working with the IRS. IRS auditors have a job to do on exam. They fit into three broad categories. Knowing all of this information consider what might work best when working with an individual at the IRS on an examination.

Conflict management styles

Much has been written on the five conflict management styles of accommodating, competing, avoiding, compromising and collaborating. Choosing one of these articles written by Jennifer Warren Medwin here is a summary of all five styles in a nice concise commentary.

  • “Accommodating: Individuals with this conflict management style are unassertive and cooperative. They tend to set aside their own wants and needs and focus on those of others. They are interested in preserving the peace and maintaining the most harmonious circumstances possible at the expense of their goals and desires.
  • Competing: Individuals with this conflict management style are assertive and uncooperative. They tend to have a headstrong personality. They take a firm stance, are positioned based, and unmoved by the perspectives of others. Additionally, they are usually aggressive with an action driven approach to tension. 
  • Avoiding: Individuals with this conflict style are unassertive and uncooperative. They avoid conflict altogether. They tend to be unassertive while diplomatically sidestepping an issue or withdrawing from it for a period of time or completely.
  • Compromising: Individuals with this conflict management style are moderate in both assertiveness and cooperativeness. They attempt to find a solution that will partially please all parties. It is an agree to disagree approach. They are able to walk away from challenging situations with only some wants, needs, ideas, and opinions being met.
  • Collaborating: Individuals with this conflict management style are assertive and cooperative. They attempt to work with the other parties to identify a solution that satisfies everyone’s overall concerns. It is a win-win approach. Negative feelings tend to be minimized with this style.”

As she states in her article any one of these styles may be appropriate depending the personal dispositions and the situation’s particular requirements. Given this information let’s look at some elements associated with generational differences and conflict management styles.

Generational differences and the public sector

Much has been written about generational differences, but this article focusing on the governmental employees found some striking similarities regardless of generation. Honesty, integrity, sustainability, the public good, a greater emphasis on serving others, balance in life, and a real desire to help transcended generational differences more so in the public sector.

There were differences depending on life and career stages, but they were limited relating to generational differences.

What might this mean to you?

Given a broad body of knowledge on generational differences here are some insights of broad observations you may find useful.

  • Affirmation – quicker feedback appreciated more for younger employees
  • Quality time – across generations, but with younger employees appreciate quality time with colleagues at and after work
  • Acts of service – especially with younger employees - colleagues working together rather than “divide and conquer”
  • Tangible gifts – “comp time off” and “flex time” especially
  • Physical touch – No known generational differences here
  • Work ethic – No known generational differences

Knowing these key elements, let’s look at some workforce observations at the public sector and the IRS.

Workforce observations

As with private sector organizations about 20% of employees are stars, about 70% are very good employees and about 10% have concerns. This is likely at the IRS too, though statistics seem to indicate more on the order of 5% have concerns. Historically at any one time about 5% of IRS employees are on a developmental plan to either improve of they may be terminated. About 80% of these employees come around. Also,

at any given time about 10% of the employees are working with the employee assistance program due to issues outside of work impacting their lives.

For example, there may drug, alcohol, juvenile delinquents, financial, or other personal issues that may be impacting the employee at any one time. You may be working with any one of these employees. Keep that in mind too.

IRS implications

The IRS has many older employees that came to the IRS as a last career stop for various reasons. This process stems from a policy to hire experienced accountants and specialists from the private sector rather than recruit and hire newer grads just out of college as a policy change some 15 to 20 years ago. These employees did not “grow up” in the IRS so to speak. They did not go through the historical 13 weeks of training that career IRS employees have. As such they come with many perspectives of the IRS prior to joining the IRS. Many of these individuals are now in leadership positions. Given their background and peers this has caused some cultural changes. They have shaped the IRS and the IRS has shaped them.

The IRS mission is to "provide America’s taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and by applying the tax law with integrity and fairness to all." Many at the IRS really believe this. A caution is to note that

some who have come from the private sector and those that are career employees may have become entrenched may tend to be more business metrics oriented.

That is, they may view their role is to make adjustments on exam rather than making a reasonable determination and promoting voluntary compliance. When that happens it may be necessary to elevate issues in management.

What does all of this mean to you?

Working with IRS employees

Tying this all together if working with an IRS employee on examination keep in mind, they are all individuals. Reach out to them from the very beginning with an open mind and try to build a connecting relationship given the information presented here. This information provides a backdrop of things to think about prior to ever meeting the IRS employee on an audit.

In general IRS employees prefer to work with taxpayers in a collaborate mode.

They have a job to do. Listen to them. Work with them. If the IRS employee is considering going down a dead end, help them out and suggest sampling or limited development of the issue to help them out. Always be honest. Offer to do computations. Offer different ways to respond to information document requests to be able to possibly break them up to provide information sooner. Listen and seek ways to help.

Consider generational differences and the motives of an IRS employee. They want to come in, have a professional relationship, do their job and move on to the next audit. The also have the capability to be there much longer, bring on other specialists and dig in for the long haul. Proceeding professionally, with integrity and honesty goes a long way towards resolving issues timely and minimizing the pain of an audit.

When you meet with an IRS employee initially ask if you might share some information with them and if they might share some information with you to develop some trust before proceeding with an examination. Ask the IRS employee

  • to tell you their story,
  • what they like to do outside or work,
  • are they a morning or afternoon person?
  • do they drink coffee,
  • are they married or single?
  • do they have kids
  • do they have pets,
  • what they have been thinking about,

Etc.

Work on building a connecting relationship from the very beginning.

For one it can’t hurt and for another thing it just might work well to develop a good working relationship form the very beginning.

Summary

Consider your and the IRS auditor’s preferred conflict resolution style knowing the overall preferred style is collaboration. Still consider the individual. Be aware of the major similarities and differences across generations. Be aware of cultural differences in the ever-changing IRS. Work on connecting relationships, actively listening and educating judiciously to build bridges to negotiate closure.

About the author

Mike is a professional speaker, and a mediator/negotiator that addresses business valuation and other issues with the IRS, and issues for clients as a conflict resolution expert. You may contact Mike directly at mg@mikegreg.com and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 11 books including, The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, NSA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]