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Your Company Ethics Hotline Might Not Be Enough

Nov 11, 2020
Deb Muller

In a 2015 report by the National Business Ethics Survey, 62 percent of employees say they witnessed misconduct in the workplace, but only about half of them reported what they saw. Additionally, according to the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics, 58 percent of all firms and 66 percent of public firms have seen an increase in the volume of submissions through all channels (not just hotlines) in recent years.

Employers receive a variety of ethics and compliance reports each year. Those report topics run the gamut from accounting and business integrity to HR and safety, capturing a wide variety of issues within the business. When implementing an ethics program, one of the first options employers turn to is an ethics hotline. After all, having a direct channel for employees to share concerns (whether anonymously or not) is a good thing, right? However, there are a few challenges with this approach that are important to consider.

Anonymity as a Limitation of Ethics Hotlines

While a hotline is a good first step toward improving the culture and protecting both the people and the business, it shouldn’t be seen as a magic bullet. For example, about 60 percent of the time reports are anonymous, which can be challenging when trying to substantiate claims or follow up on issues. While it’s important to protect whistleblowers, there are times where it’s incredibly difficult to follow through on an issue without having some of the pertinent details. It is potentially even more important for HR complaints to be submitted by an identified employee, because it’s more difficult to substantiate claims made by an anonymous source. To make matters more challenging, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that if a sexual harassment claim moves to the phase of being investigated, there should be no expectation of anonymity for claimants, which unfortunately pushes some people not to notify HR or the appropriate point of contact about suspected issues.

Ethics Hotlines as a Holistic Strategy

Even though an ethics hotline can prove to be an effective tool for increased reporting because of it anonymous nature, problems surface when an organization sees the hotline as the sole source of information about ethics violations and concerns. Other sources could include anything from calls or emails to HR, a manager, or an internal ethics officer. Data from one report supports the need for multiple reporting options illustrating that the average employee preference for reporting misconduct actually puts hotlines at the bottom of the list:

  • 60 percent reported to a supervisor
  • 21 percent reported to executive management
  • 11 percent reported to a hotline While those 11 percent are still being captured, organizations too often view this statistic as the holistic measure of potential issues that may be happening in their work environment. If you’re only looking at the hotline to capture violations, you’re missing a number of potential reports that may need to be addressed.

HR Issues as Part of Ethics Complaints

HR and harassment issues are some of the most commonly reported types of claims and employers need to be sure to have multiple avenues so an employee can feel comfortable reporting. Regardless of notification method, employers should follow a consistent documentation process for managing those allegations to ensure consistent outcomes and effective remediation.

The challenge with HR-focused complaints made via the hotline is that hotlines, often managed by third-party vendors, don’t offer any insight into the process or the outcome. Even if the complaint isn’t anonymous, the whistleblower may never see resolution when HR issues are involved. Best practice ensures that there are clear communications with the complainant about about what to expect from the organization and what the organization expects from them during the investigation. Ongoing back and forth during the fact-finding process will help employees walk away from the incident feeling like the process was handled fairly regardless of whether they agree with the outcome. This is difficult when the complainant maintains a distance through use of a hotline.

Going Beyond the Hotline

Hotlines are a valuable component of an ethics program offering a great avenue for capturing information. However they, in and of themselves, will not always protect organizations from becoming a headline or being embroiled in a big legal situation and should not be the only mechanism employers consider for reporting. Employers should offer a variety of reporting mechanisms and then have clear documented processes for managing the allegations. This will not only ensure that expectations are clear but also ensure employees recognize the process as fair. A robust case management solution should also be in place to tie together the reporting mechanisms and subsequent investigation process steps to ensure all information, from the initial complaint to the final resolution, is available in a central place. Not only will this guarantee more defensible outcomes but also ensure that any data points are captured and analyzed to identify big picture themes and trends to allow the organization to proactively identify concerns in the future.


Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.

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