04 Jun

An Investigator’s Guide to the Whistle-Blower: Part 5 of 6

After the Disclosure – The Long Play

More frequently than not, an investigator has occasion to meet a whistle-blower post-disclosure.  As such, many of the psychological processes involved with whistle-blowing have been endured.  Financial hardship, loss of employment with relatively no chance of re-entering the profession, and dissolution of marriage are likely to have occurred.  What remains is a person who frequently has a bleak and bitter outlook on life.

For some whistle-blowers, the process simply overwhelms them.  The betrayal of friends and co-workers and the perceived injustices have caused a singular and all-consuming obsession.  Even the most sympathetic of friends and family eventually tire of the tumultuous mood swings of the whistle-blower that result from thinking and analyzing the post-disclosure results ad nauseum.  Many times, the whistle-blower is abandoned and alone.  In worst case scenarios, some whistle-blowers never recover from the their perceived injustices.  There are cases where whistle-blowers have been committed to insane asylums as well as cases where whistle-blowers have removed themselves from society completely by remaining in their home or seeking residence in remote and isolated places.

The progression into loneliness and social isolation should be something an investigator considers as he/she assesses the whistle-blower for cooperation.  Since an investigator can intercede at any point in the post-disclosure process, the investigator should consider things such as whether the whistle-blower has lost his/her job, whether the whistle-blower is still holding out belief that friends and co-workers will return to normal behavior, and how long and to what extent the whistle-blower has been forced into being a social pariah.  If the whistle-blower has progressed past the initial shock and has suffered emotional and physical setbacks, the onset of loneliness and the subsequent changes to the body’s physical chemistry are almost impossible to stop.  Studies have shown that social isolation increases the levels of stress hormones in the body, raises blood pressure, and affects the rehabilitative and restorative processes of sleep.[1]  One of the mental side-effects of being forced into social isolation by whistle-blowing is that every person, no matter their true intention, becomes associated with the same out-group as those who committed the offensive behavior.  Therefore, any approach made to initiate conversation will originate from an out-group member and will be viewed with great suspicion.  Research has shown that serious trust violations result in the offended being less likely to engage in information sharing.[2]

No matter what stage the investigator first interacts with the whistle-blower, trust will be harder to establish post-disclosure.  “After trust has been damaged, there are two key considerations for the victim: (1) dealing with the stress the violation imposed on the relationship and (2) determining if future violations will occur.”[3]  Being approached is not something whistle-blowers normally seek out because contact represents an opportunity for further trust violations.

If an attempt at conversation with the whistle-blower is successful, it won’t be long before the whistle-blower questions the investigator’s motive.  While the investigator should take great care in answering the question, transparency is very important. “Losing trust also has an edge of humiliation attached to it for many of us, as if we are found out to have been foolish to trust in the first place.”[4]  Whistle-blowers are embarrassed because of actions viewed from the perspective of hindsight, which leads them to believe they should have known and expected the lack of trustworthy actions by their co-workers, friends and occasionally family members.  Swearing to never make the same mistake again, trust from a whistle-blower will no longer be so easily accessible, even if the investigator’s intentions and credentials are impeccable.

The investigator’s choice of words when speaking with the whistle-blower will be vital to the long-term relationship if one is to be developed.  An investigator who uses words indicating a definitive outcome such as will and shall will face future trust issues if the solutions promised cannot be met.  However, an investigator who uses words such as hope and try does not commit as forcefully potentially averting trust violations based on perception versus outcome.

Patience will be the investigator’s greatest asset to defeat the conscious and unconscious controls of the whistle-blower.  “Trust is built over time, especially when you deal with someone, who wasn’t fortunate enough to have experienced trust in his or her own life.”[5] When an investigator first approaches a whistle-blower, there will be a period where the parties feel each other out.  While the investigator is assessing the whistle-blower for credibility and trying to find mechanisms to establish trust, the whistle-blower is looking for any possible excuse to reject your overtures.  While investigators and others look at business relationships in a calculated way judging cost versus benefit, whistle-blowers, because of their suffering, often look at any subsequent relationship in the form of an identity based calculation which is based in emotion and self-esteem.  Self-esteem can be eviscerated in the whistle-blowing process so a collective emotional investment between investigator and whistle-blower may be essential to establishing trust.[6]

An investigator who is emotionally intelligent may have an advantage in coaxing a whistle-blower out of their social isolation.  “Understanding emotional dynamics may help one to anticipate one’s own and other’ emotional reactions and thereby to manage emotions effectively in a tense encounter.”[7] A whistle-blower may at first seem indifferent and disengaged but underneath that social mask, there is an emotional cauldron waiting to bubble over.  While conversational content will frequently meander from relevant to irrelevant, with most initial conversations dominated by the irrelevant, the investigator must resist the urge to steer the conversation to relevancy.  One wrong question can reignite the paranoia in the whistle-blower damaging the collective emotional investment.  If an interviewer cues an emotional memory through questioning too early in the relationship, the whistle-blower will be unprepared emotionally and the associated anger will cause the whistle-blower to automatically employ defensive mechanisms to protect himself/herself from a repeat of the offense, to retaliate or to correct the perceived wrong.[8]  An investigator should not be surprised or chagrined if there are long periods of time where nothing relevant to the potential case is discussed.  The information an investigator wants and needs will not be provided until the whistle-blower is both able to mitigate their anger issues and satisfy the question of whether the investigator shares the same common values and goals as the whistle-blower.  Short-term frustration should not deter the investigator’s commitment to long-term gains.

Especially post-disclosure, whistle-blowers are extremely fragile and sometimes irrational.  An investigator’s demeanor and actions can not only help to establish trust but can also subconsciously influence the whistle-blower’s behavior.  The use of active listening techniques such as mirroring/reflecting and minimal encouragers will reinforce the fact that the investigator is truly invested in the whistle-blower’s welfare.  Maintaining a calm but firm voice and repeating certain words uttered by the whistle-blower can help bring the whistle-blower down from the inevitable emotional hijacking that will occur when the whistle-blower starts to relive the emotions of the incident.

A whistle-blower was once caught in a situation where he had to disclose information about a product that was harming children.  The disclosure cost him a job as well as lifelong friendships.  When an investigator was able to first meet with this individual, the investigator found a depressed and defeated man whose only social contact was superficial and done solely to sustain existence. The investigator knew this whistle-blower held important information but building a bridge of trust strong enough to get the whistle-blower to speak about raw emotions associated with the disclosure was going to be difficult.

The investigator managed to find ways to see the whistle-blower at his place of work and began their relationship with simple greetings and cursory conversations.  More contact led to discussions beyond saying hello and worked into the “how are things going” kind of talk.  Eventually, the whistle-blower asked the investigator what he did for a living.  The investigator saw the whistle-blower recoil when told the occupation of his new acquaintance but the investigator sensed it was better to say nothing when the whistle-blower subsequently walked away.  Their relationship became more distant over the next couple of weeks with the whistle-blower withdrawing.  Despite the urge to do otherwise, the investigator simply smiled every time he saw the whistle-blower and allowed the whistle-blower to retreat into a back room.

It took about a month before the whistle-blower cornered the investigator demanding to know why the investigator didn’t divulge his identity when they first had contact.  The investigator was transparent in the face of the whistle-blower’s emotional hijacking by explaining his motivation.  The investigator attempted to establish a shared identity by outlining his goals of pursuing a remedy against the offending organization.  The investigator explained how he was trying to assess if the whistle-blower would be willing and/or capable of assisting in the matter without such participation doing any further harm to the whistle-blower.  The investigator empathized with the whistle-blower by reciting facts about the case as well as some of the hardships endured by the whistle-blower to date.  The aim of the conversation was to start building trust by acknowledging what had happened while also providing a shared goal for the future.  As they ended the conversation, the investigator told the whistle-blower that he hoped for the whistle-blower’s cooperation but that the decision would be left solely to the discretion of the whistle-blower.

Weeks passed with the investigator continually putting himself in positions where the whistle-blower would see him.  The whistle-blower initially would acknowledge the investigator’s presence but say nothing.  After a month, the whistle-blower cornered the investigator and advised that he would talk with the investigator but that the whistle-blower could stop talking at any time the whistle-blower chose.  A final condition was that if the whistle-blower chose to end the relationship, the investigator would never come back.  The investigator agreed and the relationship began.

Over the course of the next two months, the whistle-blower started providing important pieces of the story to the investigator.  The investigator never pressed the whistle-blower accepting whatever facts the whistle-blower gave him.  When the whistle-blower went off track or emotions took control, the investigator simply listened and/or empathized.  By doing so, the investigator was able to start corroborating what the whistle-blower said while also cementing the level of trust between them.  There were certainly crises during the relationship and moments where the relationship cracked but the emotional intelligence skills of the whistle-blower allowed the investigator to be self-aware and to self-regulate while also properly gauging and responding to the emotions and motivations of the whistle-blower.

An investigator who seeks cooperation from a whistle-blower post-disclosure needs to remember that sometimes, it is necessary to play the part of the tortoise instead of the hare.  Trust, especially with someone who has been as damaged as a whistle-blower, is not something that will be granted freely.  Effort, perseverance, sensitivity and time are the investigator’s allies in recruiting the post-disclosure whistle-blower.  An investigator who is well-versed in the skills associated with emotional intelligence will better be in tune with the whistle-blower’s needs and be quicker to adapt and lessen the damage from the unavoidable emotional hijackings.  These skills may be the difference between a whistle-blower’s cooperation and a whistle-blower’s rejection.

[1] Marano, H. (2003).  The Dangers of Loneliness, Psychology Today, July, 2003.  Taken from the Internet on July 29, 2016 at https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/200307/the-dangers-loneliness

[2] Lewicki, R & Tomlinson, E. (2003).  Trust and Trust Building, Beyond Intractability, 2003.  Taken from the Internet on July 29, 2016 at https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/trust-building

[3] Lewicki, R & Tomlinson, E. (2003).  Trust and Trust Building, Beyond Intractability, 2003.  Taken from the Internet on July 29, 2016 at https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/trust-building


[4] Kashtan, M. (2012).  Some Thoughts About Trust, Psychology Today, August 31, 2012.  Taken from the Internet on June 29, 2016 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/acquired-spontaneity/201208/some-thoughts-about-trust

[5] Civico, A. (2014). 5 Strategies to Build Trust and Confidence, Psychology Today, April 13, 2014.  Taken from the Internet on June 28, 2016 at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/turning-point/201404/5-strategies-build-trust-and-increase-confidence

[6] Lewicki, R & Tomlinson, E. (2003).  Trust and Trust Building, Beyond Intractability, 2003.  Taken from the Internet on July 29, 2016 at https://www.beyondintractability.org/essay/trust-building

[7] Lopes, P.; Brackett, M.; Nezlek, J.; Schutz, A.; Sellin, I. & Salovey, P. (2004).  Emotional Intelligence and Social Interaction, PSPB, Vol. 30, No. 8, August 2004, pp. 1018-1034.  Taken from the Internet on July 29, 2016 at https://ei.yale.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/pub58_LopesBrackettNezlekSchutzSellinSalovey2004_EISocialInteraction.pdf

[8] Lamia, M. (2012).  Emotional Memories: When People and Events Remain With You, Psychology Today, March 6, 2012.  Taken from the Internet on July 29, 2016 at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/intense-emotions-and-strong-feelings/201203/emotional-memories-when-people-and-events-remain


Image source: By U.S. SEC Office of the Whistleblower [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons