You receive the email alert that your organisation has a new report of misconduct. A whistleblower has taken the time to make a report through your whistleblowing platform, and the information is now in front of you.  You have an anonymous channel with the whistleblower, and you can now engage with them to understand what took place. 

So, how do you begin? You know the whistleblower has information that will help you investigate the case better. You also know they are under a lot of stress and anxiety having just reported misconduct.  It’s essential to engage them in the right way in order for them to open up and provide more information so you can investigate and take action.  

 

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In this article, we will identify best practices in engaging with a whistleblower. We’ll discuss how you can work with them from the initial report to the closing of the case.  Your goal is to get the information you need to understand and address the risk identified, as well as protecting the whistleblower from any retaliation.

How To Acknowledge Their Report & Thank Them?

When a whistleblower sends their report, they often don’t know what will happen next. Ensure you acknowledge their submission and let them know you've received it. Your acknowledgement is also an excellent opportunity to let them know about the next steps and what will happen. 

You can automate each acknowledgement in your whistleblowing platform. Automation ensures you send the right message after you receive every report.  You can also customise your messages and the next steps depending on the type of misconduct reported.  For example, you might assign people-related misconduct to human resources. They often use different processes compared with more fraud-related issues handled by compliance.  Use your whistleblowing platform to do the heavy lifting and ensure you deliver a clear and consistent message with every report received.

It’s also a great best practice to thank them for submitting their report. A whistleblower is taking a risk by speaking up and a simple “thank you” can go a long way in recognising what they are doing and gaining their trust.

How Do You Gain A Whistleblower’s Trust?

As you start engaging with the whistleblower, it’s vital to gain their trust. A great way to begin is to ask what questions they have about the whistleblowing process, your role, and what you might ask of them during the investigation. Keep them informed and give them a vision for what the process will be. 

Remember that no matter how good your corporate culture and values are, a whistleblower is always thinking about the worst case scenario.  Foremost in their minds are fears of being identified, retaliated against, and losing their job.  Directly addressing these fears and letting them know the steps you will take to protect them goes a long way towards building trust.

Also, remember that on the other end of your anonymous channel is a person. Look at the situation from their perspective and tailor your approach and communication. In some instances, the whistleblower will be agitated and might not be the easiest person to communicate with.  Instead of being defensive or pushing back, use this as an opportunity to offer empathy.   

What Questions Should You Ask?

Treat the whistleblower’s initial report as the “start of the conversation”.  Now you are communicating with them anonymously, build on the initial report and dive deeper by asking specific questions. Think of their initial report as the headline; use your ability to question to understand the story.  Your whistleblower questionnaire has more structured questions, now follow up with more open-ended questions.  Use the “5 W’s” and ask “Who, What, Why, Where, and When” to dig deeper into the incident and understand what happened.

For more insight into how to build and structure your whistleblowing questionnaire, read “What Questions You Should Ask A Whistleblower?”.

What If They Need To Identify Themselves To Progress The Case?

In some instances of misconduct, the whistleblower will need to identify themselves for the case to proceed.  The benefit of 2-way anonymous communication is this doesn't need to happen immediately.  You have a chance to communicate, gain the whistleblower's trust, as well as outlining why and when they might need to identify themselves.

Most whistleblowers are very hesitant to reveal themselves in the first interaction or when they submit their report.  However, by walking them through the process, you can let them make an informed decision about revealing their identity. You can also outline how you will protect and support them along the way.  It should always be the whistleblower's decision, and they should make this decision without any undue influence.

If a whistleblower decides not to reveal themselves, ensure they understand how this affects the case.  Again, don’t put any undue influence on them, but also be clear in your communication about what happens if they choose to remain anonymous. The important part is to provide options and clear next steps so the whistleblower can make a decision.

 

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What Are Best Practices In Updating The Whistleblower?

In many investigations, there is a flurry of activity at the beginning and then a flurry of activity once the investigation is completed. However, the middle is very quiet and this could go on for weeks or in some cases, months.  During this period it’s important to keep the whistleblower engaged, even if it’s only updating them that you are still investigating.

Silence is what kills trust during this stage. While you might be investigating multiple cases, for the whistleblower, their case is the only case. When they only experience silence, it’s easy to imagine no one cares, there is nobody investigating, and their report has fallen on deaf ears. 

Even if you don’t have anything to report, let the whistleblower know that you are still on the case and investigating.  You can set reminders to ensure you are providing updates and you can even automate this in your whistleblowing platform.  Remember that silence is often equivocated with indifference; don’t let the whistleblower think you don’t care.

How Can You Go Back To The Whistleblower Later In The Process?

If you have kept the whistleblower engaged, you can go back to them with any additional questions. You never know what might come up in the course of an investigation. It’s important that you can reach out to the whistleblower to ask questions and confirm events. They are an important source of information and if you lose your engagement with them, you lose your best source of insight.

As you start engaging with the whistleblower, but upfront about what you will need from them. Tell them you will contacting them throughout the investigation.  This can happen when you receive new information or based on conversations you have with other parties.  You don’t want reaching out to the whistleblower to be a surprise - let them know it’s normal and something they should expect. 

How Can You Update The Whistleblower On The Results Of The Investigation?

After you've completed your investigation and have final results, you should update the whistleblower. In some cases, due to privacy concerns, you can't share all of the results. However, you should make an endeavour to be as transparent as possible with them.  They put themselves out there in submitting a report; they deserve to know what action you have taken based on their report.

When you provide the results, don’t start with the end result. Go back to the beginning and walk the whistleblower through their initial submission.  Then communicate what steps you took, how you investigated the case, what information you found, and what the final results were. It’s good to reframe the case from beginning to end to ensure to show a clear progression in the investigation.

What If The Whistleblower Is Upset At The Results Of The Investigation?

It’s inevitable that some whistleblowers will be upset with the results of your investigation. The goal of this article is to provide you with best practices to minimise the chances of this happening, but it's still an outcome you need to prepare for.  The two best tools for this situation are your whistleblowing policy and the evidence you've gathered.

Your whistleblowing policy should have details about what avenues a whistleblower has if they disagree with the results of an investigation. Typically this is an escalation to another party in the organisation, usually someone on the board, the CEO, or head of human resources. Provide the whistleblower with this information and help them understand their options for escalating the case for review.  

Also, use the information you have gathered to provide factual evidence of why you came to your decision. Communicate this professionally and don’t let emotion take hold.  Ask the whistleblower where they disagree and document this, but don't argue the case. The goal of this session is feedback, not a re-opening of the case.

Summary 

Remember, the initial report is the headline, but engaging with the whistleblower is where you get the full story.  Use this opportunity to gain their trust, gather additional information, and work together with them.  Your goal is to investigate and understand the report they submitted, but understand they also want an outcome.  Focus on their experience and updating them along the way so they know they were heard and their report is appreciated and helpful towards allowing your organisation uphold it’s values and ethics.

 

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