Australia: When the whistle blows

Last Updated: 23 September 2019
Article by Andrew Malarkey and Stephen Millington

When a whistleblower complaint is lodged it sets into motion a chain of events and procedures that, if followed correctly, will expose the truth – or falsehood – of the allegation.

From July 1, Australian companies will be obliged to give protection to whistleblower employees, and have been given until the end of 2019 to institute a compliant and comprehensive whistleblower policy.

Never has it been more important to have a process in place for handling these complaints.

When a whistleblower complaint is lodged it sets into motion a chain of events and procedures that, if followed correctly, will expose the truth – or falsehood – of the allegation.

Investigators often find that the complaint is the tip of the iceberg, and once they start analysing financial records, emails and other forms of electronic communication, business intelligence and other data, they realise they are dealing with a much larger problem than they initially anticipated.

What may initially appear to be a rogue operator infecting a company can sometimes morph into a wider cultural problem within the workplace, the kind of toxic environment that allows conspirators to get away with their illegal behaviour for many years.

Different stages of investigating a whistleblower complaint

Any investigation of a whistleblower complaint runs through a number of different stages, as set out below, from the initial triage to a detailed investigation of the allegations.

Case Study

A whistleblower comes forward to make an allegation relating to their manager, who works in procurement.

1. Complaint

At this stage, it is important to follow the correct procedures, starting with getting as much information as possible from interviewing the whistleblower: who was involved, the dates of the incidents, and any need for anonymity moving forward for the whistleblower. It is important to reassure the whistleblower that the allegation will be robustly investigated along the lines of the whistleblower policy that has been established ensuring the confidentially and anonymity of individuals will be protected.

2. Triage

During the interview the whistleblower alleges that their manager has been colluding with a supplier, ACME Limited, which leads to a working party being set up to look into the allegations.

3. Preliminary assessment

Using corporate record databases and other open source intelligence, investigators will develop the ownership structure of the companies in question as well as tracking social media and other open source data to identify connections between the companies and individuals in question.

By conducting this business intelligence, investigators may find there is a close relationship between the directors or shareholders of the supplier and the senior manager, which in this case has been evidenced by a series of social media posts, which show the senior manager with the director of ACME Limited on holiday in Macau with a third, unidentified person.

4. Detailed Investigation

Based on the outcomes of the preliminary assessment it is determined that the allegation has sufficient substance to warrant a detailed investigation to be conducted by an independent party.

Structured data analysis

Data analytics can be conducted on the internal financial records (structured data analysis), as investigators hunt for anomalies in the financial information, such as pricing, quantity, timing, margin etc.

The pricing of the products is driven by the market and fluctuates heavily, as a result it is difficult to identify pricing anomalies. Using structured data analysis of the internal financial records the investigators note that the pricing from certain suppliers is consistently higher.

Unstructured data analysis

As the initial veracity of the claim is established unstructured data analytics, such as reviews of emails and other electronic documents, are deployed to delve deeper. In this example, through the analysis of emails and other documents investigators are able to establish communications demonstrating the alleged collusion between the manager, on his personal email accounts, and three suppliers.

Sentiment analysis

Whilst undertaking the email review an investigator will use a variety of tools to highlight areas for further investigation. One of these tools is sentiment analysis, which uses an AI application to rank communications based on the tones, words, meaning and sentiment expressed.

Whilst not a focus of the investigation, sentiment analysis conducted across the electronic communications uncovered a mixture of language and sentiment that indicated that the manager is part of an informal gambling syndicate.

The other individuals within the company are not connected with the supply and collusion issue so that problem is marked as a cultural issue for the company to monitor.

5. Reporting

Throughout the course of the enquiry, forensic investigators use the full arsenal of investigation tools to uncover the depth of the problem, while establishing clear communication channels with the whistleblower, gathering and collecting as much information as possible in the early stages and outlining procedural steps for the investigation to follow.

Once adequate information is gathered, investigators eliminate extraneous data and create a true picture of the alleged behaviour to report to the various stakeholders.


The key to a successful resolution of a whistleblower complaint is to have a clear policy and process.

When initiating the investigation it is important to maintain an objective stance and abide by the information unearthed, and not personal opinion or prejudices.

Investigations will make use of most, if not all, of the tools discussed above. When all of these tools are harnessed effectively, they are able to clarify information, expose patterns and highlight anomalies to devastating effect.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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