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appealing non conformances

What can you do, if you don’t agree with a non-conformance raised during an audit?

Over the last few weeks there’s been a number of requests about appealing non conformances, so we thought it would be a good idea to write a piece about what you can do.

We thought it might be good to add some of the non conformances that you’ve told us about that you didn’t agree with, to this post – with the answers. It would be great if you can share any you’ve challenged too, so we can keep adding to this list in the future. It can then become a resource for us all to refer to.

Auditor etiquette

Auditors should always make you aware of what they’re finding during the audit. Non-conformances should not be a surprise to you at the closing meeting. That being said, it does still happen so we’ll cover what to do in this event.

It’s a good idea at every opening meeting for an audit, that you request that the auditor makes you aware of anything they find as they do the audit. Agreeing these ground rules up front at the beginning, will help to reduce any issues at the closing meeting and will help create an open working relationship between you and the auditor.

Ask

During the audit you’ll most likely be aware when the auditor sees something, especially as you’re doing the factory tour, as you’ll more than likely spot it yourself too! Don’t be afraid to question the auditor about what they’re thinking. Asking “what are you thinking” will again help to open up a dialogue between you and will help to make sure you’re both on the same page.

Disagreements

If the auditor raises an issue with you that you don’t agree with, there are a number of things you should do…

  • How you behave in this situation is really important. Don’t get upset. Getting upset, cross or annoyed will only cause friction and you need to work with the auditor to come to a resolution you both agree on. If you’re not speaking to each other, this won’t happen.
  • Calmly, repeat back to the auditor what you think they see as the non-conformance and ask them to confirm to you, that you’ve understood. You could say something like. “Ok, can I just check with you, that I’ve understood what the non-conformance is?” Then explain it in your own words and then say… “Is that right? Have I understood correctly?”
  • Make sure that you are empathetic to the auditors point of view. You really need to try and see things from their perspective – if you don’t do this, you’ll not be able to work together to resolve it. Remember, the auditor is not doing this to be a pain, they’re just doing their job – just like you’re just trying to do your job. You could say something like “I can see what your saying and I understand where you’re coming from.”
  • The first thing you should always do, is to ask the auditor to show you the specific part of the clause in the Standard, which they don’t think you’re complying with. A lot of the time, this will resolve the issue, as it will be obvious from the clause whether you are compliant or not. Remember to keep calm – no matter what the outcome. Remember, you and the auditor are working together (not against each other) to come to a resolution. If looking at the clause shows you’re right, don’t blag. And, if looking at the clause shows the auditor is right, accept it graciously and say, something like “Yes, you are totally right, I agree.”
  • If however, looking at the clause doesn’t provide a resolution, then it’s up to you to put your point of view across in a professional manner. Note how I didn’t say, that you should put your ‘argument’ across in a professional manner. This is not an argument and your point of view must not be based on your feelings.  Your point of view must only be based on facts, which are provided in the form of evidence.
  • The following are signs of unprofessional behaviours: getting emotional, taking the situation personally, raising your voice, being dishonest with the truth and leaving the auditor alone for a long period of time.
  • If you’re starting to feel stressed in this situation, or you think your behaviour is becoming unprofessional, then excuse yourself from the room. Ask the auditor if they’d like a drink and say you’ll go make one, or excuse yourself to go to the bathroom. Do not leave them for a long period of time though, five minutes maximum. If you need longer than that, ask someone else to keep the auditor company for you. Take the time to get yourself together and remember it’s not personal.
  • If when you’ve presented your evidence in a professional manner, you and the auditor still can’t come to a resolution – then you need to let them know you don’t agree. Ask them at this point, if there’s anything you can do or provide that will help to resolve the issue. If there is, get someone else to gather this evidence for you and carry on with the audit. If the auditor can’t provide you with any way of resolving it, then explain in a professional manner that you don’t agree and that you will raise it in the closing meeting. At this point, you need to put the issue to the back of your mind and carry on. Wipe the slate clean and don’t hold a grudge.

Closing meeting

We’ll cover two situations:

  1. Challenging non-conformances you’re aware of
  2. Challenging non-conformances you’re not aware of

Challenging non-conformances you’re aware of

The first thing to do when the auditor gets to the non-conformance you don’t agree with, is to make sure you and the auditor agree that you’ve provided all the evidence you can to remove the non-conformance. If you’ve not provided the evidence, do it now.

If you have provided the evidence, you need to both agree to disagree. Tell the auditor in a professional manner that you’ll be appealing the non-conformance they have raised. Every certification body has an appeals procedure. Ask the auditor to provide this to you, so you can follow it.

When it comes to signing the audit report, make sure that the person signing, writes on it that they don’t agree with the non-conformance. If you don’t, you’re signing to accept the non-conformance, that’s the point of signing.  Also photocopy or scan the signed audit report so you can refer to it during your appeal.

Challenging non-conformances you’re not aware of

As we said earlier, it’s unprofessional of the auditor if they do this. However, if it happens, you need to keep calm and be professional. Two wrong’s don’t make a right. First, explain that you haven’t been made aware of this non-conformance. Ask to pause the closing meeting and then follow the steps above by providing the evidence now.

If you need to, politely excuse yourself and the rest of the management team out of the room, so that you can discuss the NCN before going back into see the auditor. Do not argue about it, in front of the auditor.

If you can’t come to a resolution with the auditor, again make sure you say this clearly but in a professional manner and ask for the appeals procedure. Remember to document this on the audit report before signing it. And, take a copy of the signed audit report.

Appealing non conformances

As the certification bodies are all accredited, they all need an appeals procedure, which they should be able to provide you.  The standard also provides you with details about the appeal process. Page 79 of the BRC Food Standard is shown below:

5.4 APPEALS
The company has the right to appeal the certification decision made by the certification body and any appeal should be made in writing to the certification body within 7 calendar days of receipt of the certification decision. The certification body shall have a documented procedure for the consideration and resolution of appeals against the certification decision. These investigative procedures shall be independent of the individual auditor and certification manager.

The documented appeals procedure of the relevant certification body will be made available to the site on request. Appeals will be finalised within 30 calendar days of receipt. A full written response will be given after the completion of a full and thorough investigation into the appeal.

In the event of an unsuccessful appeal, the certification body has the right to charge costs for conducting the appeal.”

You need to follow the appeals process given to you by your certification body.  Make sure that you provide as much background and detail as you can.  Everything you want to say has to be written down, as the appeal will only be based on the written information provided.  Do not leave any details out.  Keep all written information very factual and provide as much evidence as you can. Also, make sure that you keep a copy of all the communications that you have with the certification body, in case you need to refer to it later.

When to appeal

When appealing non conformances, you can appeal at two points in the process…

  • Within the 28 days that you have to complete the close out of the non-conformances. If you do this, you need to get the appeal in as fast as possible, because the certification body has up to 30 days in theory to complete the appeal.

So, let’s imagine that you appeal on day 1 and the certification body takes 30 days to complete the appeal.  That would take you over the 28 days. In this instance you would need to submit all of your evidence for all of the other non-conformances within the 28 days. The certification body has until 42 days from the audit, to be able to close out the audit and upload it to the BRC portal. Therefore, the time between 28 days and 42 days would be used to resolve the appeal and if necessary (if it wasn’t upheld) close out the non-conformance.

You need to make sure that you submit the appeal though, ideally on day one.  Leaving it until the last minute will put unnecessary pressure on the certification body, which will cause friction and therefore, in theory they may be less likely to give your appeal due consideration!

  • You can appeal after you’ve got your certification, but you only have 28 days from the issue of your certification. Again, the certification body has up to 30 days to complete the appeal, so you can see that you need to submit it as soon as you can.

Recent non-conformances which have been challenged

I thought it would be useful to share some recent non-conformances with you and it would be good if you could add to the list.  The more we share the more informed we will be about what can and can’t be appealed. I don’t have the answers to all of these yet, but we can fill in the gaps as we go…

The same non-conformance raised twice

During an audit where the Asda bolt on was also carried out, a site got a non-conformance against the specification section in the main part of the standard and also on the Asda module, as there was an issue with the HIVE specification.

Our thoughts: If the issue only became apparent when they audited the HIVE specification, is seems unfair to raise it twice, especially since the customer focus section has been removed from issue 8.  However, there is an argument that if the specification was wrong, this would also be non-compliant to the main part of the standard. We’ve asked BRC for their view and we’re waiting to hear.

Update 13/08/2019:  BRC have confirmed that a non-conformance can only be raised against one clause. However, the ASDA bolt on is a private module and therefore the results of this audit are only available to ASDA.  Therefore, any issues with the ASDA audit must be directed to ASDA.

Reappearance of non-conformances that were removed

During the closing meeting the auditor raised 8 non-conformances, which resulted in downgrading the site from grade AA to A. The site didn’t agree with 7 of the 8 non-conformances and it was agreed in the closing meeting that 3 of them would be removed. The audit was signed with 5 non-conformances.

A few days later the non-conformances were loaded onto the certification body’s website and a corrective action report was sent to sign.

Nine days later when a reminder to complete the non-conformances was received, the corrective action report had been altered, to include the additional 3 non-conformances that had been removed.

Our thoughts: This seems like a mistake and although the site appealed it, it wasn’t upheld. Having spoken to BRC they believe that this is a mistake.  We would say that’s it’s really important that if you feel that your appeal hasn’t been dealt with correctly, you must continue to appeal.  You can appeal, against the appeal decision.  And, if you still don’t feel that you’ve got the required conclusion, you can also appeal to BRC.  As we said earlier you can still do this for 28 days after you’ve received your certification.  We are currently following this up with the site in question and we’ll try to find out for you what the conclusion was.

Wrong logo

You’ll know that we covered a non-conformance some weeks ago about a site using the wrong logo. It turned out that the site was using the blue BRC logo – the one kept specifically for BRC to use, not the accredited site one. It highlights the fact that as the standard develops, more focus is put on areas of the standard that haven’t been looked at so closely before.  It’s a shame that the site had to suffer this non-conformance for the rest of us to learn from, but at least sharing this information meant that other sites didn’t have to suffer the same fate.

New sites internal audits

A site completing their BRC audit for the first time, received a major non-conformance against internal audits, as they hadn’t done a full cycle of audits. A gap analysis had been completed, as part of the audit prep and sections 1 and 2 had been completed, with remainder scheduled for the rest of the year.

Our thoughts:  This is harsh, especially to give them a major.  To me, a major means that a section of the standard hasn’t been implemented, which it had.  If the site had audited all of the sections of the standard, that wouldn’t have met the standard either, as they wouldn’t have been done throughout the year.

Update 13/08/2019:  The appeal of this major non-conformance has been agreed by the certification body and the major removed. It still needs to go through technical review though, to have final approval.

Environmental monitoring

A high strength alcohol site received an additional non-conformance from the technical review.  The audit produced 5 NCNs which is an AA grade, however, the additional NCN from the technical review meant that 6 NCNs dropped them to a A grade.  They had a risk assessment in place which determined that monitoring was not required, due to the alcohol strength, but this was not accepted by the certification body.

Our thoughts:  There is no point in doing a robust risk assessment, if the result of it, isn’t going to be accepted. An environmental monitoring programme includes a risk assessment and subsequent monitoring plan if needed.  You can’t use a risk assessment to determine that monitoring isn’t required, when it is really as there is a risk, but this wasn’t the case here.

The outcome (August 2019) was the site appealed the non-conformance with both their certification body and also the BRC.  The appeal was upheld and the non-conformance was removed, so the site retained their AA grade. to go through technical review though, to have final approval.

If you have any non-conformances that you have appealed in the past (or in the future) and could share them with us, it would help other sites.  We won’t share the details about your site, we’ll only share the information we all need to learn from it. Please add the information to the reply box below if you’re happy to, or please email in confidence to us at kassy.marsh@techni-k.co.uk  If you could include the result of your appeal and why it was, or was not upheld that would be great!  Let’s make this article about appealing non conformances a resource that we can all refer to in the future and help each other out.

11 Comments

  • Wasantha says:

    Good one. Thanks

  • Rebecca says:

    Very informative. I didn’t actually know about the appeals process, hopefully it will never be needed but useful to know that is is there. I only once had a disagreement with an auditor about the order in which hands should be washed and PPE put on, but the TPPS standard clashed with the supplementary information and it was such a minor point at our approval audit I eventually just accepted the NC.

  • Sharon Tomlinson says:

    Very interesting topic covered well.
    Thank you.

  • Adele Adams says:

    Really interesting examples. Hopefully that will help give sites the confidence to challenge and, in turn, improve the system.

  • clemkonan says:

    I think you “nailed it” there is not much left to be said. I always encouraged my customers to feel comfortable challenging my findings and to discuss any concerns they have before escalating it to the “appeal level”.
    The secret is clarity and objectivity so: state the requirement as per the clause, describe what was observed and contrast it against the requirement, then grade the non-conformance.
    The more serious the non-conformance use audit trails to provide solid evidence that the grade ( e.g Major vs minor ) is warranted. One certainly should not double-dip ( assign the same NCR twice), audit against the guidance document or audit based on personal opinion or preference. Similarly, remove the stress the audit should be about making your system better not just getting a “cert”.

  • Polly Day says:

    I found this topic interesting and well covered. I think there are times when auditees might like to disagree with a statement but don’t wan’t to because they think it will make things worse. or the auditor will find more NC’s. I have challenged a NC and it wasn’t up-held by the auditor at the time, but by the person who checks the audit later on. They telephoned me to tell me it had been removed from the NC list.. Result!

  • Jacqueline Burnside says:

    Very interesting, great guide and advice.

  • I successfully appealed against 3 of the 7 minor non-conformances raised by an EU auditor who was flown in to audit us. Ist was that HACCP applied to the functionality of a tray, 2nd was a suppliers scope didn’t cover the wording rPET eventhough it contains the word PET which covers both Apet & rPET. 3rd was a supplier who is ISO9000 certified hasn’t got a HACCP system which is not required! All 3 were thrown out so we retained the AA certification.

  • Majid Khan says:

    Perfect. Thanks. Majid.

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