An interview with investigators

22 July 2019

Tags: Speak Up

Katherine Bradshaw asks Peter Melling, Head of Litigation & Investigations and Andy Noble, Head of Whistleblowing & Speak Up at RBS  some common questions about the investigation process in this #SummerOfSpeakUp blog.

When we think of an investigation, our imaginations can be coloured by how much television crime drama we watch. Peter Melling laughs as he recalls a scene from Line of Duty, where an internal investigation interview with the suspected corrupt police officer is bullying, belittling and intimidating. "Our interviews are nothing like that,” he says. "We understand that being part of an investigation is distressing for anyone who has to be interviewed, so we go out of our way to put people at ease. I have been interviewed myself as part of an investigation, so I can empathise. It’s a stressful experience.”

Right from the beginning, the investigators at RBS try and build a rapport with those who have the courage to raise their concerns within the company. "We’re acutely aware of how stressful the process can be, no matter how well it is managed,” says Peter.

One of the concerns we know that those who speak up have is around anonymity and confidentiality. Peter admits it is one of the core challenges of the investigation process. "We will go to any lengths to protect the identity of people where it is in our control,” he says. "For example, especially in small teams, we may interview everyone, including the reporter, so that they are effectively ‘hiding in plain sight’.”

The well-reported scandal of the Barclays CEO and certain attempts to unmask a whistleblower has been a salutary reminder of the need to retain the independence of the investigation process. "It made us look at our own arrangements, and how we would handle a situation if someone in authority tried to identify who had reported a concern. It would be appalling if we did disclose someone’s identity. It would destroy the whole integrity and safety of the Speak Up process.”

Sometimes it can be difficult to conduct a thorough investigation if an anonymous reporter gives limited information, but through the use of an anonymous portal, investigators at RBS are able to keep in touch, find out more details and build a rapport. Although it can make the process more complicated, an anonymous statement can also often be corroborated with evidence from other people.

"In fact, we have had a number of cases which have been investigated and substantiated where we have never known the identity of the person who made the initial report,” says Andy Noble.

What happens after you make your initial report? "We are acutely aware of how stressful the time which a thorough investigation can take is for the person who speaks up – it can seem like an eternity,” says Peter. "So one of the first things the investigator will do is acknowledge the report, thank the person and let them know the timescales within which they’ll hear back from us. We also let them know that there is a counselling line available to them, and that they can contact the investigator at any time, especially if they feel they are suffering any detriment as a result of raising a concern.”

"It’s all about managing expectations. We’re keen to keep the engagement with the person who raises the concern, even if that means in our fortnightly update we have nothing specific to report yet.”

Another concern which employees may have which is highlighted in The IBE Speak Up Toolkit is a worry about what might happen if they’re wrong, if they’ve made a mistake. Will they be disciplined?

Andy is reassuring: "In our internal intranet and communications we’re very clear that the only level of knowledge required for raising a concern is ‘reasonable belief’. You don’t need to know whether it’s true; if you have a concern you should be reassured that you’re doing the right thing by speaking up about it. That’s very different to malicious or untrue reports, which are not tolerated and treated robustly, as you would expect.”

It’s rare that there are no witnesses to a situation, says Peter. "Our investigations look at the burden of proof – which, in most cases, is the balance of probability.”

One thing which can be confusing for employees is the differentiation between speaking up and a grievance. At RBS they operate a triage system, where grievances (for example, an issue with a performance rating, or personal issues with a manager) are referred to HR. "Grievances can be defined as personal ‘one on one’ issues,” says Andy. Peter’s team liaise closely with HR with a joined up approach all falling under the Speak Up banner.

"When it comes to bullying, in our experience that rarely stops with one person. It’s going to have an impact on the whole team, creating a toxic environment,” says Andy, pointing out that the FCA now consider non-financial misconduct as seriously as financial.

In his four years of running the RBS Speak Up framework, Andy says there are still cases and circumstances arising which have never been seen before. "Most cases aren’t black and white, but in the ethically grey area, which is why every report is treated on a case by case basis.”

Peter agrees. "We never jump to conclusions on the basis of that first report that comes in from the person who speaks up. A quality investigation is so important, to get all the relevant background and to establish the full picture of the situation.”

Perhaps the best indicator of the effectiveness of a Speak Up process is the feedback from those who have experienced it. Would those at RBS who speak up do it again? The answer, says Andy, is that the majority would.

"And that’s not influenced by the ‘right’ outcome,” he says. "Every single case is thoroughly and professionally investigated and it shows.”

Peter agrees: "Lots of people want to know that they have been listened to, and that’s what we endeavour to do in our investigations.”


Katherine Bradshaw
Katherine Bradshaw

formerly Head of Communications