The Ethical Dilemma: 5 Sources of Guidance for Investigators and Others

Using the consensus approach to making ethical decisions in investigations and in life

Posted by Dawn Lomer in on February 4th, 2016

In an industry that is fraught with ethical dilemmas, an investigator’s ethical decision making skills are of paramount importance. After all, when you’re scrutinizing someone else’s behavior, it’s a good idea if yours is beyond reproach.

But you only need to look to today’s media and entertainment industry to see stories of corrupt investigators, the most egregious of all at the moment being the ethical violations depicted in Making a Murderer, where corrupt investigators rule the town. But reality television aside, there are many other proven instances of ethical lapses that have occurred during the investigative process, and many areas of investigations, and in life in general, where the answers to an ethical dilemma aren’t so obvious.

There are a lot of different tools and techniques that have come under fire for potentially breaching your ethical obligations.
“From the moment a file is opened… there are challenges along the way in various shapes and forms,” says Brigeeta Richdale, Associate at Bennett Jones LLP in Vancouver and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). “And there are a lot of different tools and techniques that have come under fire for potentially breaching your ethical obligations.”

Richdale suggests that investigators and prosecutors question themselves at each stage of the investigation to keep a check on their own motivations and biases. These questions could include:

  • Who am I going to investigate and why am I choosing that person?
  • Are there any conflicts of interest here?
  • Should I look at plea bargaining with the accused for a lesser charge in exchange for testimony?
  • Who am I going to approve charges against and what are those charges going to be?
  • How am I going to prepare witnesses for a trial or hearing?
  • What techniques am I going to use in investigation interviews?

“Those questions trigger ethical obligations,” says Richdale. “What underlies that decision making [is important] because a lot of power rests with the people making those decisions.”

5 Tools for Navigating an Ethical Dilemma

  1. The Law

Faced with these ethical decisions, investigators should look to sources of ethical guidance, says Richdale, a method that she refers to as the consensus approach. “The law is a big one. I like to see that as the ground floor… that’s really black and white. It’s either against the law or it’s not,” she says. 

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  1. The Codes

“On top of that you need to look at the codes. There are professional codes of ethics; that’s an important tool. Certified Fraud Examiners are lucky to have a very clear code of professional ethics, code of professional standards. But again they can cast some grey areas. So then where do you look? You can look at codes of society.”

She gives an example of interviewing an elderly person. “Society says I [shouldn’t] smack on a table and scare that person. I’d approach [the person] with respect, because that’s what society tells us to do. We treat elderly people with a certain level of respect. So that’s drawing on those ethical considerations that society wants to see us have.”

  1. Gut Feel
At the end of the day when you look in the mirror does that decision feel right to you?
And then there’s your own gut feeling about a decision. “At the end of the day when you look in the mirror does that decision feel right to you?”

So making ethical decisions requires a combination of all the influences on the investigator, but even after this introspection, there might not be a clear-cut right thing to do. For example, an investigator may contemplate deceiving a suspect they know is guilty in order to get a confession.

  1. Philosophy

“I think a lot of people say the end justifies the means. Maybe an investigator believes they have to tell a lie to catch a liar,” says Richdale. And while the law and some of the investigator’s codes put an emphasis on trustworthiness, there may be other considerations at play, such as the philosophies behind the laws and codes.

“Some of the philosophies are utilitarianism – fairness – is it good for the greater good… you have to weigh those against each other. The approach for an investigator or prosecutor who’s conducting an examination or inquiry is that you have to use all those lenses for a consensus approach.”

  1. Mentors
You can see those who have ethics on their mind.
While the law, codes, gut feel and philosophy can guide investigators in their decision-making, the final key to solving ethical dilemmas, says Richdale, is a respected and experienced colleague, or mentor.

“I think a lot of times we try to solve problems in a vacuum, weighing all the different tools that are there but not having a truly open and honest discussion. Because that’s where you can weed out things like bias that can creep in,” she says.

Look for a colleague who is experienced in a similar area, suggests Richdale, someone with high ethical standards who has been through the ethical dilemmas you face, has learned from mistakes and has enough experience to have seen other people’s ethical lapses. “Those people, when you are looking for them, make themselves very clear,” says Richdale. “You can see those who have ethics on their mind.”

Richdale’s consensus approach to solving investigators’ ethical dilemmas has huge potential for anyone struggling with a decision. Being aware of your influences, personal ethics, codes and philosophies and then finding a sounding board for the ideas that result shines a spotlight into all the corners of the decision-making process. Examining decisions with this kind of rigor is a great way to eliminate the split-second ethical lapse that can sink a career.


Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.