I want to thank those who contributed comments to my post, “Hotlines inhibit honest feedback, and other reasons people clam up.” The ideas in the post, as I shared, run counter to the conventional wisdom of why organizations deploy anonymous hotlines, and their value.
I am pleased the post inspired further discourse.
As I read the comments and re-read what I had said, as well as the article in the Harvard Business Review that I cited for the proposition that anonymous hotlines signal to employees that it’s dangerous to report ethics and compliance problems, I wondered if everyone is correct?
I see wisdom in the consensus from the comments that anonymous hotlines are indeed necessary. As Adam Turteltaub commented, “Saying we should eliminate hotlines because the message from an anonymous hotline is, ‘It’s not safe to share your views openly in this organization’ is like saying we shouldn’t have air bags because they send a message that is it’s not safe to drive a car.” I often used a similar analogy in my work selling protective bullet resistant products. They are there because we need to prepare for the worst.
In his comment, Joe Murphy put it this way: “[A] helpline in effect, gives your employees a ‘permission slip’ to speak up. Knowing they have that option seems to make them feel freer to raise questions directly. Also, importantly, having an anonymous reporting system communicates to potentially abusive bosses that their employees do have a way to get help.”
Hence, perhaps in many organizations, the HBR authors are correct: It’s not a safe environment to publicly speak up. However, does the mere existence of an anonymous hotline send that message? Probably not. The hotlines don’t exist in a vacumm, and there are many factors that create an organization’s environment.
Consequently, I would agree with the comments that a channel needs to be in place to capture what might be critical information that could protect employees and improve organizations.
I also agree with the comments that it only takes a few loud voices in an organization to drown out what might be well intentioned leadership programs and statements which seek to encourage a speak-up culture. As related in each of the comments, where those voices also have rank and seniority, it ends up making for a very intimidating environment.
I guess it’s still a long haul to change the culture, environment, and organizational messages that might ultimately serve to remove the inhibition to publicly speak up. Until then, like airbags and bullet resistant vests, we need to recognize that bad things happen, and be prepared. Anonymously or by an invite to lunch, Joe Murphy’s counsel of “listen, listen, listen” crosses all perspectives.
Thank you again, and I welcome the discussion.
Richard Bistrong is a contributing editor of the FCPA Blog and CEO of Front-Line Anti-Bribery LLC. He was named one of Ethisphere’s 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics for 2015. He consults, writes and speaks about compliance issues. He can be contacted here.