03 Jun

An Investigator’s Guide to Whistle-Blowers: Part 4 of 6

An Investigator’s Role Prior to a Whistle-Blowing Disclosure

Whistle-blowing is often an arduous process.  It takes a toll on the psyche and depending where the whistle-blower is in the process, it will be up to the investigator to adapt. If the whistle-blower has not yet made a disclosure, the investigator has different responsibilities than if the whistle-blower had already made the disclosure.

Occasionally, a whistle-blower will find an investigator and provide details of the illicit and/or illegal acts committed by the organization before relaying these allegations to an appropriate party inside the organization.  In this instance, the investigator must be guided by their own personal ethics or by departmental/organizational policies.  An investigator should be aware of what is and isn’t allowed prior to conversing with the whistle-blower.  This will help prevent the investigator from making promises that cannot be upheld in the future.

There are a number of ways to manage whistle-blowers and their information in these situations.  An investigator would certainly be eager to listen to a whistle-blower if the investigator felt that both the source and the information were to be credible. Many investigators are constantly on the lookout for a big case and whistle-blowers are certainly a vehicle that could help the investigator to achieve their goal.  Our desires, however, can impact the relationship between investigator and whistle-blower.

It is likely that a whistle-blower who has yet do disclose will be quick to trust the investigator, but that trust can be short-lived.  An investigator may be able to protect the identity of the whistle-blower for a period of time, but eventually there will be disclosure.  When the organizational members learn or suspect the whistle-blower, the betrayals will begin.  If the investigator has planned correctly, such a negative event can be used to forge a lasting bond between investigator and whistle-blower.

An experienced investigator successfully managed a number of whistle-blowers over his career.  His approach was different than other investigators, as he would go into great detail of what was going to happen to the whistle-blower after any disclosure became public.  The investigator and the whistle-blower had detailed discussions about the likelihood of the whistle-blower losing his/her job, the inevitable betrayal of people they considered to be friends, and the possibility of divorce.  This investigator would even attempt to get the whistle-blower to forego disclosure or to hire an attorney knowing that if the whistle-blower chose to hire an attorney, he/she would likely have been advised to stop speaking with the investigator.  Why would this investigator go into such detail and plead with the whistle-blower to forego disclosure or seek out an advocate when the whistle-blower potentially represented access to a career-defining case?

The answer was complex.  First, the investigator believed that if a person was going to have his/her life upended, they should at least have the option to decide if they wanted that outcome.  The investigator often told the whistle-blower that he would have wanted such a choice if he were facing a similar decision.  In this way, the investigator was laying the foundation for the future.  The whistle-blower who has yet to be betrayed will quickly develop trust issues with everyone.  It is a natural psychological reaction.  A traumatic experience in adulthood involving betrayal of trust causes people to establish social barriers as a defense mechanism.[1]  By being brutally honest with the whistle-blower and providing a choice, the investigator is planting the seeds of trust that can be harvested after betrayals occur.  According to Wharton professors Maurice E. Schweitzer, John C. Hershey, and Eric T. Bradlow, people who have been betrayed can trust others again.  “Trust harmed by untrustworthy behavior can be effectively restored when individuals observe a consistent series of trustworthy actions.”[2]   As events unfolded around the whistle-blower after disclosure became public, the investigator’s predictions to the whistle-blower started to come true.  With each event foretold, the whistle-blower is able to find consistency in the investigator’s statements, which can reinforce the levels of trust between the two parties.

The reverse can also occur if the investigator withholds important information from the whistle-blower.  Schweitzer, Hershey and Bradlow’s experiment also found that when a person’s trust is violated and the violation includes lying about the offense, trust is very difficult to restore.[3]  If the whistle-blower simply perceives the investigator to have been less than truthful at any time, trust may be impossible to establish.  The investigator effectively countered the whistle-blower’s natural defense mechanisms by laying a foundation of trust through brutally honest conversations about what would happen to the whistle-blower if the choice to disclose became public.  With each prediction that came true, the bond between investigator and whistle-blower became stronger.

There are other psychological underpinnings occurring after the disclosure becomes public that are important to the investigator.  When the betrayals and the job termination happen, the whistle-blower is cast into an out-group status.  Human beings have an innate need to belong to a group.  When we face social rejection, like a whistle-blower does when he/she experiences co-worker’s betrayals, our self-esteem is lowered significantly.[4]   An investigator who has been able to bond with the whistle-blower can assist in helping the whistle-blower regain their self-esteem.  This could be essential to case resolution in the future, especially if the whistle-blower is required to give testimony in criminal and/or civil court.

A secondary benefit to social bonding is that the investigator can create a new in-group for the whistle-blower.  Re-connecting by way of the investigator is essential in order for the whistle-blower to soothe their emotional pain and to re-establish belonging.[5]  Common goals are what draw people to groups. “The more people feel conceptually uncertain about things that matter, the more they are inclined to identify with groups.”[6]  It is likely that the whistle-blower sought some form of justice when making the disclosure.  Making a corrective action the social identity for the new grouping may be enough to tie the whistle-blower to the new group identity established by the investigator.  “The substantial body of literature on whistle-blowers suggests motivations include a desire to maintain an image of themselves as moral people.”[7]  By working with an investigator who can provide visibility, access to court-related solutions, or serving as an agent for change, the whistle-blower can quickly fall into in-group behavior with the investigator as the leader.

The hardest thing for the investigator to do in this process is to stifle eagerness.  The investigator will be frustrated during their relationship with the whistle-blower.  This is unavoidable.  Patience will be one of the investigator’s most precious assets.  There will be countless hours of listening where the investigator should use active listening skills such as mirroring and minimal encouragers to empathize with the whistle-blower while also maintaining trust.  An investigator who is only interested in talking about the facts of the case can easily alienate the whistle-blower.

As much as the investigator would like to get to the heart of the matter, the complex emotions of the whistle-blower will interfere.  On some days, the whistle-blower will be ready to discuss important parts of the case to the investigator.  On other days, the whistle-blower will succumb to depression and/or anger, which will negatively impact the discussions between the investigator and the whistle-blower.  Still, the investigator who has planned for the future and who is willing to ride the emotional waves of the whistle-blower may eventually end up being able to affect positive change in an organization and/or investigate the case of a lifetime.

 

Michael Bret Hood is a founding partner in 21st Century Learning & Consulting, LLC, a group that offers leadership & financial crimes training, investigative consulting and expert witness services.  Michael is also the author of the new, critically acclaimed leadership book, Eat More Ice Cream! A Succinct Leadership Lesson for Each Week of the Year.

 

[1] Unknown Author(s) (2014).  The Psychology Of Trust Issues and Ways to Overcome Them, Good Therapy, October 8, 2014.  Taken from the Internet on July 8, 2016 at http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/the-psychology-of-trust-issues-and-ways-to-overcome-them

[2] Unknown Author(s) (2006).  Promises, Lies, & Apologies: Is It Possible To Restore Trust, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, July 26, 2006.  Taken from the Internet on July 8, 2016 at http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/promises-lies-and-apologies-is-it-possible-to-restore-trust-2/

[3] Unknown Author(s) (2006).  Promises, Lies, & Apologies: Is It Possible To Restore Trust, Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, July 26, 2006.  Taken from the Internet on July 8, 2016 at http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/promises-lies-and-apologies-is-it-possible-to-restore-trust-2/

[4] Winch, G. (2013).  10 Surprising Facts About Rejection, Psychology Today, July 3, 2013.  Taken from the Internet on July 9, 2016 at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201307/10-surprising-facts-about-rejection

[5] Winch, G. (2013).  10 Surprising Facts About Rejection, Psychology Today, July 3, 2013.  Taken from the Internet on July 9, 2016 at https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-squeaky-wheel/201307/10-surprising-facts-about-rejection

[6] Hogg, M. (2001).  A Social Identity Theory of Leadership, Personality and Social Psychology Review, Vol. 5, No. 3, 2001.  Taken from the Internet on July 9, 2016 at http://home.ubalt.edu/tmitch/642/E%20articles/judge%20bono%20erez%20locke%20Core%20self%20eval%20and%20job%20sat%202005_files/hogg%20social%20id%20theory%20ldrship%20JPSP.pdf

[7] Hollings, J. (2014).  Help Them to Speak: The Psychology of the Reluctant Vulnerable Witness or Whistle-blower and What Influences Them to Speak Out, Investigative Journalism Education Consortium, January 28, 2014.  Taken from the Internet on 5/13/2016 at http://www.ijec.org/2014/01/28/help-them-to-speak-the-psychology-of-the-reluctant-vulnerable-witness-or-whistle-blower-and-what-influences-them-to-speak-out/

 

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

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