Investigating with integrity: four potential biases of the internal investigator

Are you aware of the four of the biases that may affect professional investigators in their activities? Taking these potential weaknesses into account in our thought processes allows us to be better investigators.

As professionals tasked with examining and reporting on the activities of others, investigators are expected to operate with a high level of integrity. As a matter of fact, “integrity” is a key word commonly found in the “requirements” section of investigation professionals’ job descriptions. But what does it mean to have integrity? How do you know if you have it or not?

Integrity is not to be confused with independence. One is linked to the other but they are in fact two different concepts: in the context of corporate investigations, independence is organizational, integrity is personal.

Investigators are independent if they don’t have a vested interest in the outcome of the investigation. Such independence obviously doesn’t exist when professionals investigate activities of people within their own team or of someone they report to.

Being organizationally independent protects investigators from appearing as biased since they don’t have to worry about the potential career implications of their investigation’s conclusion. Establishing organizational independence therefore creates the conditions necessary for integrity to be preserved, both in reality and appearance.

But organizational independence is not sufficient as, conceptually, personal integrity has much broader and deeper implications. To define it negatively, personal integrity is the absence of personal bias.

As professionals, we are all subject to personal biases and acknowledging them is key to ensuring that we are carrying out our work with integrity by being able to objectively address the key questions we face on an everyday basis. For investigation professionals. These questions are for instance: Do I investigate this or not? Do I conclude that there is an issue or not? Do I report on this issue to the Board or not? Etc.

I have identified four biases that I find critical for the corporate investigation profession as they threaten to influence the investigator’s key decisions at every step of the investigative process.

1. Expectation bias

Just as investigative journalists must beware of sensationalism in their reporting, internal investigators must always ask themselves: is my reporting influenced by what I think the Management or the Board wants to hear?

In some organization, the “shoot-the-messenger culture” may create pressure to understate the seriousness of a situation or to participate to the collective denial about the existence of problems. In other cases, executives may have indicated to the investigators that they were expecting the investigation to confirm their existing certainty about the reality of a misconduct. Such expectations can be expressed in many subtle ways by the future recipients of the investigation reports without having to utter the words: “let me tell you what your investigation report should say…”

As social creatures, we are naturally reluctant to antagonize others and eager to please the people we work with (even more so for people we work for). Investigating with integrity means being able to rise above these natural instincts and focus objectively on the facts of the case.

2. WORKLOAD bias

Another typical feature of human behavior is the natural propensity to avoid pain. In a professional context, even for those of us lucky enough to love our profession, more work means more pain. Unlike many other professions, investigators are often left to decide whether they are satisfied or not with the extent of their own work and have the ability to use their professional judgment to increase or decrease that workload: Is this a red flag that requires deeper analysis? Can I conclude based on the work I have already done?

Such situations place the investigator in a classic dilemma: being free to choose between what is right and what is easy. Investigating with integrity will sometimes mean self-inflicted longer hours of tedious analysis.

Conversely, for investigators charging by the hour for their work, this also means knowing when to stop and not investigate more than what is strictly and objectively necessary to reach a conclusion.

3. KPI bias

We all know corporate misconduct is often linked to the pressure of indicators: analyst ratings, revenue targets, performance forecasts… All of these indicators create ethical tensions in organizations on a daily basis. Sometimes these tensions result in a misconduct which needs to be investigated.

Investigators themselves are not immune to the pressure of performance indicators. For instance, the performance of investigators may be evaluated based on how many cases they handle and how fast they close these cases. These are fair metrics. Investigating with integrity means being able to look at a given case’s status with the same objectivity as the reporting deadline is drawing near. If a case can be closed, it should be closed. If not, it should be kept open… even it means missing the quarterly target for closing cases.

4. Maslow’s proverbial hammer bias

As Abraham Maslow famously wrote: “I suppose it is tempting, when the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” Not all situations in the life of an organization need to be investigated. Sometimes decisions or actions that end up having adverse consequences on an organization are just bad business decisions. Someone took a risk. The risk became a reality. The organization lost money. The organization’s board or management may want to assign blame for the loss and request an investigation to help them support their decision-making process.

As tempting as it may be to investigators to show their relevance by investigating as many different situations as they can… sometimes the investigation is not the answer to the problem. In such cases, investigators need to be perceptive enough to avoid second guessing business decisions with the benefit of hindsight and through the accusatory lens of an investigation. Politely declining to investigate is sometimes the most, if not the only, appropriate answer.
In theory, the identification of these biases is fairly easy and essentially proceeds from common sense. However, their concrete influence on our everyday work as an investigator is hard to discern.

In my opinion, remaining aware of these potential weaknesses in their thought process and examining their work critically in such light is the best way for investigators to give true meaning to the “integrity” requirement on their job description.

*Abraham H. Maslow (1966). The Psychology of Science. p. 15