What Questions Should You Ask A Whistleblower?
One of the most stressful events in one’s life is submitting a report as a whistleblower. From the uncertainty of what might happen to the anxiety of making a report, they are under incredible pressure. It’s at this point the whistleblower is answering questions and providing you with information about misconduct. As an organisation, you have the balancing act of making the whistleblower feel protected but also asking for sensitive information. If your questions are too broad, you might not get the details you need. If they are too specific, the whistleblower might worry about being identified, and they won’t answer or submit the report.
In this article, we'll discuss best practices around building questionnaires for your whistleblowing program. We’ll focus on ways to ensure the whistleblower completes their report, as well as helping it be an easier experience for them.
How Long Should The Questionnaire Be?
The length of your questionnaire is an art of balance. If the questionnaire is too long, then the whistleblower will not complete it. They could also worry they are providing enough information to be identified. However, if your questionnaire is too short, you might not get enough information to assess the case and understand what happened.
A best practice for developing your questionnaire is to see the journey from the eyes of the whistleblower and then apply common sense. Ask yourself, “if I was in a stressful situation would I answer all of the questions and submit this questionnaire?”. As an organisation, we often look at what we want without thinking about how this impacts the whistleblower.
Answer the questionnaire yourself and see how long it takes to finish it. Many organisations feel the need to ask any and every question in their questionnaire. The net result is they lose the balance and have an incredibly long questionnaire whistleblowers won’t complete. Look out for questions that are not necessary, don't have an impact, and you can ask the whistleblower later. Identify and then cut these questions to shorten your questionnaire.
How Do I Make The Questionnaire “The Start Of The Conversation”?
Together with the length of your questionnaire is the approach of it being the “start of the conversation”. Focus on collecting the information you need to understand what happened. However, keep more specific questions for when you start engaging online with the whistleblower. With 2-way anonymous communication, you now have a chance to ask specific questions that build on the information the whistleblower provided in their initial report.
Their initial report is the headline; use your ability to communicate with them to understand their story. The initial report has more structured questions, next 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.
How Should I Use Conditional Questions?
Conditional questions are an excellent tool for getting more specific information. It's a feature available in most whistleblowing platforms that allows you to program questions to be inserted based on previous answers.
The benefit of conditional questions is that you can keep your questionnaire shorter. New questions are only added based on earlier responses. It’s also a great feature to get unique information. For example, if your question is “What type of misconduct did you experience or witness?” and one of the choices is “financial fraud”, you can then add a conditional question saying “choose which type of fraud: theft, embezzlement, price fixing…”. Conditional questions help you get more specificity related to earlier answers.
Conditional questions don’t necessarily need to be "questions". They can be supporting content, resources, or examples that appear based on previous answers. They provide the whistleblower contextual information to more clearly answer the questionnaire.
What Types Of Questions Should I Use?
While the length of your questionnaire is an art of balance, the questions you use is an art of choice. Multiple choice questions are more straightforward for an informant to answer; however, they might not provide you with specific information. Free-write questions help the whistleblower provide precise details, but it is unstructured content that might not give a clear picture. Other questions like dates and numbers provide information that only makes sense when combined with other answers.
In putting together the questions to ask a whistleblower, you need to think of the questionnaire like a story. A good story always progresses from chapter to chapter with a distinct storyline. Your questionnaire should be no different. Think about how each question will link and build on earlier questions to tell the story about what happened. Structured data like multiple choice, yes/no, and true/false combined with unstructured data can help you gain a richer understanding of what happened.
How To Walk The Whistleblower Through The Questionnaire?
It’s important to understand the whistleblower’s state of mind when submitting a report. They are experiencing stress, riddled with anxiety, and often are not thinking as clearly as they normally would. Whistleblowers can provide an answer that is unclear or might not make sense to the person reading it, which can cast doubt on their report. In reality, they might have been confused about the question and what it was asking.
Ensure each question has clear instructions on how to answer it. Without influencing the whistleblower, provide examples and outline what information you are looking for. Written questions with guidance go a long way towards receiving clear answers that help you take action. A best practice is to have different people read your questionnaire and provide feedback on anything uncertain or uncomfortable.
Don’t write the questionnaire so it seems clear to yourself; write it so that any employee answering it will understand how to respond. You probably understand your code of conduct, but is it clear to everyone? Probably not. That’s why it is essential to link to additional resources to help employees understand what you are asking.
What Questions Make a Whistleblower Nervous?
No matter how strong your corporate culture and company values are, a whistleblower is always thinking of the worst case scenario. Number one on their list is getting identified and facing retaliation.
As you put together your questionnaire, look at it from the whistleblowers perspective. While you want as much information as possible, what impression will the whistleblower have? Are you asking for information that could potentially identify them? Have you asked so many questions that in aggregate one could potentially guess who they are? Have you asked for details that might seem minor, but could be a red flag to someone who is already in a heightened state of anxiety?
Questions that make whistleblowers nervous are those that could to provide an educated guess about their identity. Location questions are at the top of the list. While you might have some large locations, you might also have some smaller ones. By merely naming their office it might narrow down the list of individuals to less than 20. Think about grouping locations together so that no matter what someone picks, there is always a sizeable number of employees.
Any demographic questions also make whistleblowers nervous. In most instances, these are asked to track where misconduct is happening and to whom, but it also can be an identifier. Examples can include gender, role in the organisation, business unit, team, and level of experience. Individually these questions my not identify an employee, but combined it could easily identify someone. Understand if you need the information and if so, how will this impact whistleblowers completing your questionnaire.
How To Make the Whistleblower Feel Good At The End Of The Questionnaire?
A whistleblower’s kryptonite is silence and a lack of information. After going through the stress and anxiety of submitting a report, the last thing a whistleblower wants to hear is “nothing”. Focus on engaging the whistleblower once they provide their report. A quick response helps them understand the next steps, and they know they are being taking seriously.
The first step is to acknowledge the receipt of the whistleblower’s report immediately. You can use an automated message that confirms you have received the report. Next, either in this message or through content provided in your whistleblowing platform, outline what the next steps are. Also communicate what the overall process is and when you will update the whistleblower. At this point, more information is better as it will help the whistleblower understand what will happen next.
Also, make sure that a case manager contacts the whistleblower within a reasonable amount of time. Twelve hours is excellent, 24 hours is acceptable, 48 hours is starting to push it. Make it a seamless process from the whistleblower submitting their report to being in contact with a case manager. It will build trust, and that trust will help you get the information you need to have a successful investigation.
The best way to identify fraud and misconduct is through tips and whistleblowers. Whistleblowers have the information you need, but it is critical to ask them the right questions. As you build out your questionnaire, always think about what the whistleblower will experience. Being centric towards the whistleblower's experience will provide better, more precise, and more actionable information.