This post is part of Investigating Companies: A Do-It-Yourself Handbook. Read, download or purchase the whole book here.
You can access lots of the sources in this handbook from a computer or in print, but there’s often no substitute for getting away from the desk, talking to people and seeing what you can find. Go down to the company’s offices or workplace, see what things look like, and if the company is complying with regulations and standards. You may also find out who is supplying the company with goods and services, or who their business partners are. Take a camera to photograph or video what you find. But often the most valuable information will come from people with personal experience of the company.
TALK TO PEOPLE AFFECTED BY THE COMPANY
If you want to know the impact of a company’s operations, talk to people affected by them. If you have suffered from the company’s activities yourself, it’s still worth talking to other people to get different experiences and perspectives – and a bigger body of evidence.
Go down to the areas where the company is working and ask people about it. Knock on doors or try local pubs or cafes.
Contact existing campaigns and community groups working on the issue (see section 3.2 for more on this). Take a leaflet or card with your contact details on that people can take if they don’t want to talk to you in public.
Back at the computer, see if there are any online forums that you can get in touch with people through, such as a Facebook group, or if they have LinkedIn or Twitter profiles. You could tweet out general requests to ask people who have information on a particular subject to get in touch with you.
Remember, gaining people’s trust can take time, and people are often more likely to talk to you if they can see that you’re not there just to report on what’s going on, but to help them change it. Don’t assume people will be happy with you quoting them or taking photos – always ask permission. Always respect requests for anonymity and make sure you have people’s permission to use their name publicly.
Where relevant, ask people if they can provide you with as much evidence to back up what they are saying as possible, not necessarily because you doubt them, but because the more evidence you have, the more effective you can be.
TALK TO DISGRUNTLED WORKERS
The people who work for the company can tell you more about it than most, and contact with staff members who are willing to help you can lead you to discoveries you wouldn’t otherwise be able to make.
A useful first step may be to get in touch with their trade union. Try to talk to workers as well as the union officers – and the local branch as well as national head office – as their views and opinions can sometimes differ.
If the company works with the government or a public sector body, talk to staff there. They may be particularly willing to talk if the service they work for is slated for privatisation, or if they’re unhappy with the deal provided by the company.
Civil servants, and staff of executive agencies, regulators or local councils can give you lots of good information if you can persuade them to talk to you.
If you come into contact with a staff member who wants to ‘blow the whistle’, and release sensitive information about the company they’re working for, encourage them but appreciate that this could have serious consequences on their lives, and be supportive and respectful of their choices.
Minimise risk by not communicating with them through their company email account and take other precautions as necessary (see the guides mentioned in section 1.6). Only publish information they give you with their consent, and ensure that you are taking as much care as necessary to protect their interests.
TALK TO RIVAL COMPANIES
Your enemy’s enemy isn’t exactly your friend, but if you can get talking to someone from a rival company, they may give you some good information or maybe just some interesting gossip on their competitors. Just make sure that you’re not a pawn in a game they’re playing.
If you have the time and inclination, you could try to get a job with the company you’re looking into.
Going undercover in this way can lead you to all sorts of valuable information and discoveries, but there are various concerns to bear in mind, especially if you want to publish the information you find. Among others, you risk being charged with fraud for false representation – as you were paid for a job you got on the basis of a false CV – and the contract you sign will more than likely contain a confidentiality clause, opening yourself up to a civil claim by the company.
CASE STUDY: Working against workfare
Workfare – forcing unemployed people to work without pay for companies and other organisations – was introduced in the UK by New Labour. Anti-poverty and claimants’ groups – some of whose members had been forced to do unpaid placements – started to piece together a list of which companies were benefiting from it by talking to people about it as they were leafleting their local jobcentres.
As the scale of the scheme became clear and the coalition expanded it further – with huge companies like Tesco, Asda, Argos and Primark benefiting from thousands of hours of free labour – the groups started the Boycott Workfare campaign that has since shamed many companies, plus charities and other organisations, into pulling out of the scheme.