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This post was originally featured on the White Collar Forensic blog.

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 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 and inquiries that don’t necessarily rise to the level of an investigation being necessary. 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 which 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 out of defensiveness and discredit the allegations.

Suspending cynicism and bias

There are several important things for the reviewers of hotline alerts to keep in mind. Reporters sometimes don’t always know what’s important to include in an alert. That doesn’t mean they’re wrong, it just means 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 investigate the alert and close it without further action.

Another factor that can cause bias in how an alert is responded to is when the reporter comes across as “odd” or “unorthodox”. Most experienced investigators will tell you this can often lead the reviewer to be dismissive, even if the allegations are otherwise very detailed and credible sounding. Unorthodox-sounding reports do 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 is a slippery slope and comes 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, equal treatment and confidentiality. Communicate clearly and openly with reporters in order to 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, their information was received and is being evaluated. Thank them and confirm what they are doing is important and honorable.

If the decision is made not to further investigate, inform them and thank them again 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 a productive conversation more likely.

Final words

Every investigation is different. The whistleblower, the company, organizational and ethnic culture, and the allegations all play in important role in whether the investigation is successful. Avoiding unconscious basis, treating each alert as worthy of follow up, and each reporter with respect is the cornerstone of a successful whistleblower hotline. These building blocks in your confidential reporting and investigations program are critical for the success of your ethics and compliance program.

NAVEX is dedicated to providing world-class hotline reporting and incident management support. To learn more, visit the page below:

Whistleblower Hotline for Speak-Up Programs