“If we could sum up all the causes of hurt, pain, and hatred in one word, it would be expectations.”  – Ancient Proverb

Imagine the courage it must take to blow the whistle on unethical activity at your job.  Whistle-blowers experience fear of being fired, being found out, retaliated again, and losing their reputation, while wrestling with the desire to do the right thing.  But once whistle-blowers have made their report, they’re often disappointed and disillusioned.  This is frequently compliance’s fault.

What Happened?

Surveys and academic research shows that the vast majority of whistle-blowers report internally before reporting to regulators or the media. One survey found that 90% of whistle-blowers reported internally before filing qui tam lawsuits.  Why did they report outside?  One of the major reasons was their perception that nothing was done about their report.

Managing Expectations

Once an employee has blown the whistle, they want to know what’s going on.  Many times the compliance officer is so busy protecting confidentiality and keeping the investigation going that communication with the whistle-blower falls to last priority.  In order to manage expectations for the whistle-blower, be sure to do the following.

Discuss Time-frame:  Whistle-blowers may not be aware of the length of time an investigation can take.  You may be juggling several investigations that are already in progress, and not be able to devote time immediately to another investigation. Or, perhaps you realize that the issue brought forth by the whistle-blower is complex and will require several interviews and the obtaining of many documents.  Perhaps the issue is big enough that you need to bring in outside counsel to perform the investigation under privilege.

Whatever the factors, as soon as you can estimate a time-frame for the investigation, share that information with the whistle-blower.  Setting expectations about timing can prevent negative feelings festering for days or weeks while the whistle-blower perceives that nothing is being done.

Schedule Regular Check-Ins:  Investigators often get so wrapped up in the investigation that they forget to check in with the whistle-blower to tell them what is going on.  Set regular calls or meetings, ideally every one to two weeks, to keep the whistle-blower appraised of the investigation.  Even if you can’t share details on the investigative process or current conclusions, checking in with the whistle-blower to assure them that the investigation is continuing will help them feel better about their complaint.

Share Outcomes:  To the best of your ability (keeping in mind confidentiality), share the outcome of the investigation with the whistle-blower.  If the investigation was inconclusive or found that there was no issue, this may be hard for the whistle-blower to believe.  Share as many details as you can so that the whistle-blower can resolve that a full and complete investigation took place.  Even if the whistle-blower isn’t fully placated, if they believe that a proper investigation took place, they are less likely to report externally, and more likely to let go of the grievance over time.

Check-in Three, Six, Nine and Twelve Months Later:  Retaliation frequently occurs immediately after the submission of a whistle-blower complaint.  However, it may also creep in during the ensuing months.  Managers that have been trained on non-retaliation may gradually stop focusing on subtle forms that can arise, such as failure to assign good projects or to invite the whistle-blower to social events when the rest of the office is invited.  By checking in with the whistle-blower at regular intervals, you’ll show that you care about them and that you still have their back.  You’ll also be able to nip any retaliation in the bud quickly instead of allowing resentment and poor practices build up over time.

Review Performance Reviews for Five Years:  Check-in on the performance reviews of whistle-blowers year-on-year to see if there is any evidence of potential retaliation.  Performance may change over time, but if there is a steady or marked decline in the employee’s evaluations, there may be a pattern of retaliation appearing that needs to be checked.

By setting expectations up front, checking in regularly during the investigation, and following up after the complaint, you’ll allow the whistle-blower to feel confident that he or she did the right thing.  And that can make all the difference next time bad behavior is seen at the office.