Learning lessons from Oxfam - To disclose or not to disclose? That is the question.
Robin Hamilton, Aldbury International
The Oxfam travails illustrate the age-old conundrum of what an organisation should do about rumours of impropriety. The temptation is to apply a very narrow and self-serving assessment of whether the rumours contravene the absolute letter of the law, as this allows the organisation to convince itself that there is no ‘prima facie’ case, so there is no need to disclose anything to anyone.
In tackling this issue over many years, I know that local HR managers, normally the recipients of the rumours, are placed under huge internal pressure to not go digging. The fear from above being that if they go digging they will uncover the proverbial ‘can of worms’.
But this is akin to tip-toeing around and ignoring an unexploded bomb.
In fact, the real issue is not the possibility of the potential explosion, but organisations not having a process for working out how big the bomb is and how to diffuse it.
What should you do about the rumours that circulate and swirl around your operation?
The first thing is to realise that these rumours are telling you something about your organisation, but that you don’t yet understand what is being said. What is needed is a process of refining and interpreting these coded messages. This is achieved by implementing an “Intelligence” focused analysis / investigation, which can be rudimentary or sophisticated, depending on the nature of your charity and its operation. Built into this should be a clear disclosure framework and ‘tipping point criteria’. You don’t have to disclose everything you find out, but you need to be reminded when you are in danger of starting to cover things up. The timing of when and how to transition from an intelligence-led approach to a prosecution-led approach is never clear cut, but having an independent perspective can help clarify when the time is right to engage with your regulatory authorities.
It is worth remembering that regulatory authorities don’t want any sudden explosions, as these make them look bad. If your organisation has a framework for harvesting the intelligence that rumours offer, and a bias towards disclosure when you find an unexploded bomb, I have found that the regulatory authorities will engage constructively and discreetly to resolve the issues you face. A lesson that Oxfam may now have learnt.
“Intelligence Investigation” – is where you build up an understanding of how and why something is happening, so you can plan when to tackle the problem on your terms, rather than try and build a prosecution case on the back foot.
“Tipping point criteria” – is where you do not have a complete picture of the wrong doing, but you have enough understanding to start to plan when and where you will act. So, from this point everything you do must be within the relevant regulatory framework on how evidence must be collected and presented.