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Whistleblower series: Connecting with whistleblowers – intake tips

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In the last blog in this series, I wrote about the different types of wrongdoing that whistleblowers report. In this blog, I have set out some practical tips about establishing contact with a whistleblower who has reported wrongdoing.

The ability to interact with a whistleblower will obviously depend on whether there is a way to contact them. Some whistleblowers provide their full identifying information and contact details, while others choose to remain anonymous. In this latter group, some do provide contact information (usually an email address without identifying information) or may have used the organization’s third-party reporting platform that allows for anonymous communications.

For any reports for which contact with the whistleblower is possible, the first step should always be the same: acknowledge receipt of the report and do so quickly (within one business day is preferable). I cannot emphasize enough how important this is. First, it’s common courtesy; the whistleblower may have worked up the courage for weeks, or even months, to report wrongdoing. Second, responding quickly shows the whistleblower that the organization takes whistleblowing seriously, which can help to earn the whistleblower’s trust. Third, the whistleblower may lose interest as time goes by or forget to check on the status of their report (if using a third-party reporting platform or an “anonymous” email address they created). Finally, if the whistleblower doesn’t receive a timely response, there is a risk that they may go elsewhere with their report (e.g., to the media).

There can be a tendency to delay responding to the whistleblower to sort out logistical issues; for example, the organization may want to figure out who will be in charge of the investigation and how to find evidence. I get it – it’s good to be prepared. However, waiting to respond is not a good tactic, for the reasons I noted above. There are two practical tips that I can offer here. The first, which I referenced in an earlier blog, is that having an established whistleblowing program in place can eliminate some of this scrambling. The second is that if there are indeed logistical issues that need to be resolved, then a simple acknowledgement can be sent to the whistleblower to let them know to expect further communications (e.g., “We wanted to let you know that we have received your report and will write again to you shortly with some questions”).

Other than to acknowledge receipt of the report, that first communication back to the whistleblower can serve a few different purposes. The first is to ask the whistleblower whether they would be willing to have a telephone conversation or an in-person meeting to discuss their report. This isn’t necessary in every case, and would depend on the complexity of the case and the quality of the information that the whistleblower provided. I would, however, be reluctant to bring this up in the first contact with an anonymous whistleblower for fear of scaring them away. On the other hand, it’s probably safe to assume that a whistleblower who provides full contact details may be more willing to speak or meet.

The initial communication with the whistleblower can also be used to obtain more information from them about their report; it’s normal for there to be gaps in the information that whistleblowers provide. However, I would refrain from asking a very long list of questions as this may overwhelm the whistleblower. I would typically start by trying to obtain a few key pieces of information and may follow up with questions to get some of the “nice to have” information. Again, the approach really depends on the circumstances of the case. It’s a little bit of a balancing act as too many questions could be overwhelming, but not obtaining enough information at the outset could be detrimental if the whistleblower loses interest later on in the process and stops communicating.

The tone of the communications to a whistleblower is also important. The communications should be respectful and professional, without sounding overly bureaucratic. In a first communication back to a whistleblower, I would typically tell them who I am and what my role is. I would also acknowledge the step that they took in coming forward and thank them for doing so. If there is information that the whistleblower needs to know about the process, I think that it’s a good idea to provide this in a separate document so as to not clutter the communication back to the whistleblower. As always, plain language in all communications is best.

Most of all, it’s important to refrain from passing judgment on the whistleblower. There can be a tendency to malign whistleblowers (especially those who come forward anonymously) or to disbelieve them. Neutrality is key here because making assumptions early in the process can lead to “tunnel vision” during the investigation. The assumption should always be that what is being reported could be true, and to treat the whistleblower as if it could be.

In the next blog in this series, I will give some tips about investigating whistleblower reports.

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