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Published: December 1, 2021

Internal Safeguarding Investigations: the truth may hurt, but not as much as the alternatives

By: Sean Buckley

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For international organisations – commercial and humanitarian – operating in regions around the globe, the cost of staff misconduct can be staggering in money, reputation and human misery. However, while terms like ‘internal investigations’ may conjure images of Big Brother colleagues, in reality, training key staff in the basics of competent investigation can profoundly impact organisational culture, where a commitment to transparency can build a collective resistance to malpractice. In this blog, Sean Buckley (OSACO Group Ltd) discusses why doing safeguarding investigations right is so important.

The OSACO Group Ltd has a network of professional investigators, security/risk professionals and trainers working for clients across the humanitarian and commercial sectors. Most of what we deal with falls into three categories. There are administrative issues like safeguarding, fraud, embezzlement, procurement and supply chain scams. Then there’s physical security stuff, such as theft, attacks on property or staff, kidnapping, road traffic or other accidents. And then there’s what you could broadly call human interaction issues, such as abuse of authority and position, harassment and discrimination, right through to violence, sexual exploitation and abuse.

While most organisations of any size will have a raft of over-sight and compliance type structures in place, the degree to which staff behaviour is monitored and, in cases of alleged misconduct, investigated and pursued varies greatly. It’s a highly complex issue, particularly for locally employed staff working in remote locations under difficult circumstances, where conflicts of interest, power structures, family loyalties, local culture and the sheer pressure of the general environment can exert huge pressures on people.

Providing appropriate training for safeguarding

Unfortunately, it’s quite common for investigations to be carried out ad-hoc by untrained staff, maybe from HR or wherever. In more serious cases, such as safeguarding, it’s increasingly common to bring in external professional investigators, not just to pursue the matter at hand but to train in-house staff in the basics of investigation. Whoever undertakes the investigation must be qualified, transparent and unbiased.

The Danish Refugee Council (DRC) is one example of a large international organisation that has taken a highly proactive approach to dealing with staff misconduct and trained a significant number of regular staff as investigators. At OSACO, we successfully managed to support DRC to develop a well-structured and very relevant safeguarding investigation training course.

It is vital that training is survivor focused, and that investigations are planned and documented at every stage. A half-assed, poorly conducted investigation is almost as damaging as not investigating at all. It sends the wrong messages to all stakeholders.

The reputational cost of inadequate investigations

You are dealing with human lives, misery and suffering. Unfortunately, there are various organisations that have suffered in recent years due to poorly conducted safeguarding related investigations. These can be deeply damaging and a corrosive message within the internal culture of an organisation.

Commercial and humanitarian organisations have different raisons d’etre and cultures, but people being people, they share many of the same problems when it comes to staff misconduct. The two sectors may have fundamentally different primary concerns – reputation and the fear of it being tarnished has historically meant far more to humanitarian organisations than to big businesses, where the primary concerns are profit and share value – but these concerns can lead to the same thing happening.

Many commercial businesses and brands now accept their primary focus cannot just be the bottom line. Just as reputation damage has always been a primary threat for humanitarian organisations, businesses are finally beginning to see that a loss of standing with their critical audience or sponsors does more than putting them in the spotlight of shame but represents a direct existential threat no matter how large they are. It would also be a mistake to think the problems of internal malpractice are limited to developing regions or just to the far-fling outer reaches of big organisations.

Investigations training, such as the programme put in place within the DRC, is just one of many tools that can be developed to tackle the gap between an organisation’s stated intention and its on-the-ground culture. Anything that makes it the norm to look closer encourages staff to flag up concerns without fear of consequences and instils some faith in due process has to be a good thing.

Part of this culture shift comes from a clear recognition of the monetary, reputation and human costs of misconduct, security incidents and the ongoing collective. Most importantly, all safeguarding investigations should be survivor-focused, considering what the survivor wants from the investigation, as well as their safety, security, medical and phycological support needs. They are to be foremost in your planning.


Please contact Sean Buckley for more information.


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