The option to report a workplace concern anonymously is a foundational part of a healthy ethics and compliance program. Aside from being required by law (depending on how your organization is structured and where you do business) the anonymous reporting option acknowledges that raising an allegation of wrongdoing is scary and often the consequences of doing do seem uncertain.
No matter the pronouncements of a company’s value statements or code of conduct, the fear of retaliation will never completely disappear and making the decision to do the right thing is sometimes a little easier if you don’t have to sign your name. And, even when employees are comfortable not being anonymous, the fact the option exists lends credibility to the process for everyone.
For a number of years annual hotline benchmarking data reflected a gradual decline in anonymous reporting with anonymous reports dropping from 65% in 2009 to 58% in 2020 with a steep drop to 50% in 2021. More reporters took cover in 2022 with the anonymity rate climbing back to 56%, according to data from the 2023 NAVEX Hotline & Incident Management Report. The long-term trend still suggests a gradual move to greater comfort with named reporting, which most compliance professionals agree is a good thing. However, this still leaves a little more than half of all reports coming from an anonymous source, running the gamut from minor issues to allegations of significant misconduct.
Anonymous reports almost always make for more difficult investigations. With the exception of concerns related to otherwise easily accessible information (e.g., comments made by supervisors in a meeting attended by dozens of people or employees who post racist rants on a public social media page), things move faster and with greater certainty if investigators can talk directly with a reporter.
No matter the pronouncements of a company’s value statements or code of conduct, the fear of retaliation will never completely disappear and making the decision to do the right thing is sometimes a little easier if you don’t have to sign your name.
Anonymous reporters may raise serious allegations but without including the level of detail necessary to move forward with an investigation. In some instances, where the behavior was not witnessed by any noted third party, retaining complete anonymity may make an investigation nearly impossible.
So, what can an organization do to encourage anonymous reporters to share as much information as possible and how can ethics and compliance professionals use available technology to communicate promptly and effectively with those anonymous reporters and, when appropriate and feasible, convert an anonymous reporter to an identified reporter?
It starts with ensuring your employees know how to report an ethics concern and that they understand they can do so anonymously. This is more nuanced than it seems. In most mature organizations, encouragement to report and the options for reporting pop up in the usual places including the company intranet homepage, the annual code of conduct training, new employee onboarding presentations as well as ad hoc all-company emails from the ethics and compliance team sprinkled throughout a given year.
How these communications are worded and presented, however, can increase their impact. While thoughtful communications often (understandably) list multiple channels for reporting including supervisors, HR representatives and senior leaders as well as the hotline, the most effective messaging should highlight the hotline, its anonymous option and also note that to best ensure prompt action, anonymous reporters should include as much detail as possible. This can be done with creative graphics in training modules, the use of examples in live training as well as including reporting and hotline references in communications from business leaders who are NOT part of the Compliance/HR/or Legal functions.
This can be tricky. You want to encourage direct reporting, while acknowledging that an anonymous option may be preferable and still effective for some employees and stakeholders. If your organization has a corporate communications team, consider partnering on a fresh campaign that highlights the process for reporting workplace conduct concerns.
Using your hotline tools effectively
Most large companies utilize a vendor-supported hotline software solution to allow employees and other stakeholders to report ethics concerns including fraud, harassment, theft, conflicts of interest and other workplace conduct issues and almost always provide an anonymous reporting option. If you have more than a handful of employees and do not have a hotline software tool you absolutely should look into it – there are a number of reasonably priced off-the-shelf options.
Most vendor-supported hotlines feature some form of a PIN and password system, which allows the company representatives, usually members of the ethics and compliance, legal or HR teams to communicate with the reporter. NAVEX whistleblowing solutions offer this, for example and allow investigators to confidentially communicate with the reporter even when the reporter chooses to remain anonymous.
The reporter files their concern either via the web or with the vendor’s call center operator and receives a PIN/password unique to their case or matter number. A report is generated and forwarded to the company’s hotline team who review the allegations or concerns, and then post an initial response, often a generic assurance that the matter is being investigated and the suggestion that the reporter check back for updates.
While these platforms issue the PIN and password to all reporters, facilitating potential dialogue in this fashion is the essential component of a viable anonymous reporting option (when reporters identify themselves, investigators usually move to direct communication via email or phone calls). The ability to follow up with with anonymous reporters is particularly important. As is often the case, additional information or more detail is needed to move forward, and getting that information quickly may be the difference between a thorough investigation of a serious allegation or a case that is closed a month later for “lack of sufficient information to proceed.”
This is why a quick but thoughtful response to an anonymous reporter is so important. A first step for the primary stakeholders in the hotline intake and investigation process is to work together to create standard initial response language where additional information is needed from anonymous reporters. For example, “All issues raised to the Ethics Office are important to us. We have received and reviewed your initial report but to effectively investigate your concern we need some additional information…”
It is equally important that the remainder of the communication be tailored to the concern raised by the reporter. “Could you please share, to the extent possible, the date and time the behavior described in your report occurred, any additional details you recall and the names of anyone who might have witnessed the behavior or may have information about the incident?”
It is also a chance to request (without requiring) the reporter to convert themselves from an anonymous to a named reporter, or potentially known to investigators but still anonymous to others. While it is paramount that the choice to remain anonymous or not be solely that of the reporter, direct access to the reporter usually makes for stronger investigations with fewer delays.
But it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Consider adding language like the following to the response as appropriate: “Given the nature and circumstances of your concern please consider speaking directly to the assigned investigators in a confidential setting…” Depending on your investigation process you can provide a direct phone number or email for the assigned investigator or an Ethics & Compliance team member. From there, case investigators can discuss whether the reporter wishes to be identified only to the investigation team or is comfortable being more broadly identified. Good investigators will also always be clear about the potential for a reporter’s involvement to be assumed or deduced based on the nature of the allegations and other circumstances surrounding the investigation.
Timing and maximizing your tech
It is virtually impossible to know if or when an anonymous reporter will use their PIN and password to return and check in. This makes posting a swift response so important if you want to avoid the gut punch of having a reporter return before the team is able to post a request for additional information. Reasonable or not, a reporter who checks back as requested and is greeted with no reply from the company is far less likely to return again. On the other hand, the best response sometimes requires a little info gathering by the hotline team and, practically speaking, the volume of reporting at a given time may result in a certain amount triage related delay.
This is where your hotline software may be able to help. Some platforms, including whistleblowing and incident management solutions on the NAVEX One platform, allow a company to add a notification option to the anonymous reporting selection process. When a reporter responds “yes” to the anonymity prompt, they get an additional option to provide an email address to the vendor. The email address will not be shared with the company (this is made clear in the selection language). Instead, the platform software will send an auto-notification to the reporter when their company’s hotline team posts a reply to the reporter.
It is virtually impossible to know if or when an anonymous reporter will use their PIN and password to return and check in. This makes posting a swift response so important if you want to avoid the gut punch of having a reporter return before the team is able to post a request for additional information.
This increases the general likelihood of the reporter viewing the company reply and decreases the time between reply and further review/response from the reporter. Further, when the company’s replies include the sort of thoughtful language described above, it may result in the reporter sharing the details necessary for a strong investigation and potentially considering a direct dialogue with investigators.
If you are not sure if your organization has this option, you can ask. Or you can check by starting a test online report and see if the option is offered. Some platforms may not have the option. In other instances (and I know of a few) the company has not “turned on” this option because they were not made aware it was added or offered since their last software update or renewal.
Healthy organizations need a consistent and trusted mechanism for reporting and investigating workplace concerns. An effective hotline software solution and anonymous reporting option is a key component of that mechanism.
Healthy organizations need a consistent and trusted mechanism for reporting and investigating workplace concerns. An effective hotline software solution and anonymous reporting option is a key component of that mechanism. The best of these solutions offer tools that improve the quality and timeliness of communications between the organization and reporters – anonymous or otherwise.
When you add to that a team who understands how best to use those tools, you’ll bolster an ongoing trust-building exercise between the company, employees and other stakeholders that is essential to meeting the reporting and investigation goals of your ethics and compliance program.
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