Suspending Cynicism in Hotline Investigations
In most investigative scenarios, it is important to question everything, not take things at face value and to be skeptical including when interviewing witnesses. In hotline investigations however, it is sometimes necessary to suspend cynicism in order to avoid potentially biasing the investigation. An active, well-promoted hotline produces a steady volume of alerts for compliance, legal, human resources and internal audit personnel to sift through. Hotlines can also produce a lot of noise – alerts that don’t rise to the level of being worthy of investigation. That fact alone can make the readers of alerts to become desensitized to allegations that are more substantive.
Think of your hotline as if it is an airport security metal detector. Airport security entails a lot of mundane, repetitive tasks that can cause the stewards of that critically important process of screening passengers to lose their focus and miss something that poses a genuine threat. Another common phenomenon when it comes to hotline investigations is unconscious bias. This could lead to a very important hotline report to be discounted for one of several reasons, each of which are based upon unconscious basis. Most executives are loyal and protective of their organization and may unconsciously become defensive when an allegation is made that could be harmful to the company. Instead of reacting with urgency and performing an expedited investigation, some may find reasons to discount what is being alleged of defensiveness and discredit the allegations.
There are several important things for the reviewers of hotline alerts to keep in mind. Whistleblowers sometimes don’t always know what’s important to include in an alert. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it just means that they neglected to include sufficient detail for the recipient to conclude the allegations are worthy of further investigation. Most hotlines allow for confidential communications between the reporter and the person reviewing the alert. Suspend your judgement until you’ve at least posed your follow up questions to see if they can provide the missing details. If they don’t reply or their reply still does not provide enough of a basis to conclude the alert should be investigated, you can either try to get additional details or determine you have expended enough time and effort to flesh out the alert and close it without further action.
Another factor that can cause bias how an alert is responded to is when the author comes across as odd or unorthodox. Most experienced investigators will tell you that this can often lead the reviewer to be dismissive, even if the allegations are otherwise very detailed and credible sounding. Weird does not necessarily equal wrong or delusional. As the person reviewing alerts, it is important to separate any idiosyncrasies of the reporter from the allegations they are making. Ask yourself the question, if the author wasn’t odd, would the allegations stand up on their own? If the answer is yes, you need to ignore the “how” and focus on the “what”.
One more important thing to consider when evaluating alerts: resist the impulse to try to identify the whistleblower or make assumptions as to who they are. This can be a very slippery slope and come across as retaliatory. If a whistleblower feels strongly enough to come forward despite the fact that doing so could put their careers and reputation at risk, they are worthy of respect. All reporters should be treated equally and confidentially. It is important to communicate clearly and openly with them and make them feel heard. They are anxiously waiting to see if an investigation was triggered and it may not be obvious to them from what they are able to observe within the company. Let them know, within the bounds of what is appropriate, that their information has been received and is being evaluated. Be sure to thank them and dignify that what they are doing is important and honorable. If the decision is made not to further investigate, let them know and again thank them for coming forward. If you do end up investigating, continue to update the reporter periodically without divulging sensitive details. In some instances, those whistleblowers start to feel more confident that their allegations are being taken seriously and start to trust you more. When the investigation progresses to an overt phase and witness interviews are performed, the whistleblower may be among those being interviewed. If that’s the case, you’ve already laid important groundwork with them having established a rapport and making it more likely you will have productive conversation.
Every investigation is different. The whistleblower, the company, organizational and ethnic culture, and the allegations at hand all can play in important role in whether the investigation is successful. Avoiding unconscious basis and treat each alert as potentially valid and each reporter with respect. This is an important building block in your confidential reporting and investigations program which is a critical cornerstone of your ethics and compliance program.