Not so long ago, I was remotely managing an investigation into corruption allegations in a country pretty far down TI’s Corruption Perceptions Index.* The allegations had come from a whistleblower, and were serious and complex.
The lead investigator had just returned, fresh off the plane and into our update meeting with the rest of the team. We sat down in a comfortable meeting room, thousands of miles away from the dusty, hectic and often frightening city in which the allegations had arisen. The city was one of those places that was sort-of a conflict zone, sort-of a disaster zone, sort-of a global city and sort-of none of these things. Development specialists and humanitarians worked shoulder-to-shoulder, and projects evolved quickly in response to an endlessly changing local environment.
“Yeah, so, I interviewed the snitch,” she began, with a cheeky smirk.
I stopped the meeting.
“The what?” I said.
‘Snitch’, ‘grass’, ‘squealer’ – this was not the first time that I’d heard investigators themselves using pejorative euphemisms for whistleblowers, informants and sources. It is bizarre; often, without such sources, there would be no investigation. So where does this attitude come from?
There is another dimension of anti-corruption work that’s similarly full of euphemisms, and might offer an answer – and that’s the act of bribery itself. As Richard Bistrong memorably said, “the language of bribery has many words – except ‘bribery’.”
A ‘drink’, ‘gravy’, ‘tea-money’, ‘consultation fees’ – such language is often an exercise in re-framing, a way to alleviate discomfort with bribery by using words that carry different (and lighter) connotations. So, is the truth that some investigators are uncomfortable with whistleblowers – that there is a deep aversion, perhaps culturally-rooted, to people who ‘tell on others’?
Fortunately, I don’t think many investigators fit into this category, but there are enough that we need to talk about the tension here. Firstly, the truth is that whistleblowers and their reports are the lifeblood not just of an investigation, but of an entire fraud and corruption control framework. Without these reports, we would not necessarily be able to:
- Gain prior warning of materialising fraud and corruption risks;
- Conduct trend analysis of risk areas (especially where reports did not contain sufficient data for full action);
- Plug whistleblower data back into our risk assessment, honing our deterrence and prevention controls;
- Evaluate the quality of our anti-fraud and corruption culture.
Secondly, whistleblowers face enough challenges already. From stakeholders obsessed with identifying them, to those who try to use the whistleblower’s motivations as a shortcut for judging their credibility (and no – just because a whistleblower is motivated by reward or revenge, it does not mean that their allegations are untrue). Investigators play a critical role in mitigating these risks to them.
Thirdly, and this might come as a surprise to some investigators – whistleblowers don’t just talk to you. So if you fail in your management of them, chances are people will find out – and that impacts upon the chances of anybody else sharing information with you in future. There are more whistleblower horror stories than success stories. After all, if we handle a whistleblower really well, who ever really finds out that there was one?
What kind of investigator are you?
Every so often, I hear investigators at conferences speculating (or riffing online) about what sort of people become whistleblowers. I wonder if a more pertinent question is, what sort of investigator are you? And in particular, how much attention do you give to your eternal, internal battle against cognitive biases, heuristics and errors – a battle critical to maintaining your objective investigative mindset?
Whistleblowers are real people, who for whatever reason, have placed themselves at some risk. I have seen these risks materialise, and it is not pretty. So, how can we ensure that our investigative practice sees whistleblowers as constructively as possible?
Reflect on your own attitudes. What assumptions do you make, and bring to work? Are they valid, or are they biases? How might they affect your work? What could the consequences be?
Treat whistleblowers as an asset. Although an investigator is not necessarily there to be an ‘advocate’ for a whistleblower, they should ensure that the whistleblower’s material is treated objectively and securely, that they are treated fairly, and that the risks to them are properly identified, considered and managed as far as possible.
Embrace hot and cold debriefs. (Or ‘immediate and delayed’ debriefs.) Adopt a cycle of evaluating your own performance and incorporate how you handle whistleblowers into it. Handling a whistleblower includes how you interact with them, treat their information, manage the investigation around them, and manage other stakeholders.
Challenge the litany of euphemisms. Language affects how we think and act. Let’s call whistleblowers by their proper designations – confidential sources, confidential informants, confidential reporters, whatever the term your organisation or local regulatory environment uses. Don’t let investigators call them ‘snitches’.
The way that we allow ourselves to think about those who participate in our investigations can be the enemy within us. We need to manage it as we would manage any other risk.
* Details have been changed. Images do not necessarily represent the locale or persons described.
Find out more about handling whistleblowers, building a meaningful fraud and corruption control framework, and more for humanitarian and development organisations in Fighting Fraud and Corruption in the Humanitarian and Global Development Sector (Routledge, 2016).
It’s out now – treat your office!