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I get it. We’ve got to have anonymous hotlines

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.

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  1. I would point out a potential downside of anonymous hotlines…the inability to get additional information on the allegation. Often employees fail to give sufficient details for a meaningful investigation.

    At my company we actually have a password controlled feedback loop built into our hotline where messages can be sent back to an anonymous reporter in the event they call back or log back into the on-line hotline site. Sometimes it works, but in other cases a potentially valid allegation can't be investigated or the investigation is delayed until a future report is made or an actual issue surfaces in the course of business.

    A double edged sword for sure.

  2. We do have to have anonymous reporting systems for employees. But we also have to make sure that we are creating cultures which support speaking up. A hotline does not define the organizations culture, rather the behaviors of leaders (and the employees who take their cues from leaders) defines the culture. That behavior can demonstrate that employee concerns are taken seriously or not; that behavior can also demonstrate whether reporters face retaliation or not. The HBR article provided some insights on how leaders can shift behaviors to send the right messages about the culture. Those aspects of the article should be the real lessons for leaders rather than the point about whether or not an organization should eliminate its anonymous reporting system.

  3. Employees already know that it is not safe to report. The litigators' HR 'investigation' pre-packed to discredit the ethical reporters has had its impact across all industries. Workers' real question is whether they need to buy a Hollywood 'burn phone' and 'voice disguiser' to report the really really bad stuff, (preferably from three states away). Queued up Big Brother, sorry, management responses to the initial contact will only spook the ethical reporters into final silence. (No doubt as intended.) Three generations of workers have learned that the lawyers don't really want to know the facts so that management can correct what is wrong: the lawyers just want to shut up the ethical reporter and make the whole thing go away permanently, generally through intimidation and blackballing.

    Attend an NACD meeting on the subject sometime. Listen to the litigators on the subject of "crazy whistleblowers" across industries and government agencies. Hotlines are just a trap for the unwary, as are HR departments, absent a genuine open door policy that ranks and silos, backed by real ethical standards and institutional moral compass.

  4. As noted above, "Employees already know that it is not safe to report." Retaliation and the fear of retaliation, no matter what company "policy" might state, is real, but accusations of retaliation are scoffed at by management. At least that has been my experience.

  5. I would agree that anonymous hotlines are useful – however, that is just a guess and I don't have any evidence to back that up.

    The comment about airbags isn't as much of a slam dunk as it might first appear. For example, it seems obvious that cycle helmets are protective and that mandating them will increase safety. But it is not entirely clear how protective helmets actually are across the board – there is evidence that wearing a helmet causes people to adjust their behaviour (i.e. they take more risks) in a way that reduces, or even perhaps completely counteracts, what would otherwise be a safety gain.

    My point is that behavioural science is uncovering many of these apparently counterintuitive results. And yet the way we impose controls and risk management structures is still largely based on untested assumptions about how people will react to them. It may well be the case that many aspects of risk management are either ineffective or even counterproductive when properly scientifically assessed (possibly including the use of anonymous hotlines) against how people actually behave in practice. The only way to be sure is to test them properly. Otherwise we're just guessing.

  6. Anonymous hotlines are necessay. They serve an important purpose, no matter how small. But, key is to also stress that a hotline is not and should not be the only means by which employees can report potential violations of policies and/or laws. The other traditional lines by which employees can report things: to their manager, HR, legal or compliance, etc. should always be highlighted.

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