Be quick, proactive to avoid whistleblowing

When an employee has concerns about fraud or other wrongdoing within your organization, that person can take two paths: either report it internally, or report it to regulators and become a whistleblower.

You always will fare better by having the person report internally, says Dave Scher, JD, a principal with The Employment Law Group in Washington, DC, who specializes in representing whistleblowers. However, if you don't respond properly, the person still might turn into a whistleblower. Here is Scher's advice:

1. As soon as an employee voices a concern about possible fraud or other improper activities, sit down with him or her to discuss the situation. Do not delay. Listen carefully to the employee's concerns, and indicate that you are glad he or she reported them. Tell the employee that you will research the matter further and report back with more information.

2. Have the compliance department conduct a thorough investigation. Do not minimize the employee's concerns or dismiss them as unfounded. Every allegation should receive a thorough investigation. Even if the conclusion is that the concerns are unfounded, the healthcare provider has performed due diligence and created a paper trail showing that it responded in a responsible way. When a legitimate problem is uncovered, the provider's actions will show regulators that it responded in a proactive way as soon as it was notified of potential trouble.

3. If the concerns are well founded, the organization should consider publicly disclosing the problem through the media and explaining what steps are being taken to fix it.

4. Thank the employee for bringing the issue to your attention. Most importantly, protect the employee from retaliation. Remember that the retaliation might not originate with your office or the executive suite. The employee's line level supervisor and coworkers might retaliate if they see the whistleblower as a troublemaker, so go directly to the supervisor and emphasize that any sort of retaliation is inappropriate and will not be tolerated. Consider reassigning the whistleblower, supervisor, or coworkers if necessary.