It Is Time to End the Debate: Compliance Hotlines Must Accept & Track HR-Related Reports

For the 25 years I have been working in ethics and compliance, there has been an unfortunate turf battle waging between Compliance and HR over what types of reports should be accepted by the ethics and compliance hotline. Specifically, the debate is whether ethics and compliance hotlines should accept harassment, diversity and workplace respect (HR-related) reports. Salvos and disagreements come from both sides.

From the Compliance side, some teams want to receive the HR-related reports and some don’t. I have heard Compliance – and often the organization’s leadership – declare that taking HR-related cases on the hotline is adding “noise” to the Compliance incident management system and is an annoying distraction from the “real” issues. The belief is that too much time and resources are taken away from seemingly more business critical cases such as accounting, safety, financial or misuses of corporate assets.

All raise good points, but it is time to settle the debate starting with some level-setting on the importance of HR-related reports. 

From the HR side, some teams believe it is important to offer multiple reporting channels to employees. Others believe the potential for dual reporting options for HR-related matters can cause confusion for employees and position the Compliance department to have too much influence over HR-related responsibilities. Teams in HR may also believe that multiple oversight responsibilities in this area are inefficient and could provide an avenue for employees who are “answer shopping.”

All raise good points, but it is time to settle the debate starting with some level-setting on the importance of HR-related reports. HR-related reports matter a lot to the entire organization. We only need to look at the impact of the #MeToo movement to understand this. And even if we are “only” discussing issues of respectful behavior, these issues are also now making headlines including issues of pay equity. If there is turmoil or mistrust in the workplace, business is affected.

Read MoreYou Can't Delegate Ethics on the Issue of Sexual Harassment

Who “Owns” the Reports?

Neither department owns the reports. The organization owns the reports. It is the organization’s reputation at stake when something goes wrong – not any one department. The organization must work together to implement and support the necessary processes to ensure that all matters are addressed professionally, objectively, and in a timely way. The point of a multi-option reporting system is to build the trust that employees need in order to feel comfortable in reporting a concern – by whatever sanctioned method and to whomever they are most comfortable with. Period.

To me, this is the bottom line – Compliance should accept and track HR-related reports, and HR should accept and track compliance-related reports. To do anything else is a disservice to the organization and our employees. Forwarding the report to the other department and closing it out in your own system with no follow-up is not the right answer either. The employee will hold whatever department they reported to accountable for an appropriate response.

Employees Will not Stop Using the Hotline for HR-related Reports

Our hotline benchmarking data has consistently shown for many years that 70 to 72 percent of all reports to the hotline are HR related. Why is this? First and foremost, codes of conduct and other compliance related policies specifically address issues of fair treatment, harassment and workplace respect. Violation of these principles is a violation of the code of conduct, therefore, the hotline is seen as an appropriate resource. Secondly, there are HR-related matters that are serious compliance violations.

We – Compliance and HR – are the ones who need to change and here is why. Changing this employee practice would require one of two disruptive and unacceptable efforts:

  1. We could redirect reporters mid-process. And yes, however you cut it, it would be mid-process. That’s because for a department, the reporting process begins when a case is opened; however, for the reporter, the process starts when they decide to pick up the phone or walk into our office. This is the most pivotal part of the reporting process and can easily be derailed if an employee feels there are too many hoops to jump through or if they are being shuffled around.
  2. The alternative is an extensive communications campaign. This can be even more detrimental. Any communications campaign advising employees not to use their internal hotline for certain types of reports will only serve to alienate employees and potentially quiet would-be reporters. When an employee builds up the courage to report an issue affecting the organization and is turned away or redirected, they are demotivated to continue the reporting process.

The System Is Working

Here is another reason why Compliance and HR, not the employees, need to change. It’s working. Mostly.

This year, our 2018 Ethics & Compliance Hotline and Incident Management Benchmark Report found that 44 percent of all HR-related reports received via hotlines were substantiated. This is up from 38 percent in 2016 – one of the biggest increases of all allegation categories. So nearly one of every two HR-related reports to an organization’s hotline has merit.

I have often said that turning on the phone line is the easy part. It is what we do when we receive the issues that will ultimately determine our effectiveness.

I have often said that turning on the phone line is the easy part. It is what we do when we receive the issues that will ultimately determine our effectiveness. Instead of vying for ownership or independence, HR and Compliance should be in locked step because in total, these issues are an important indicator of organizational culture – a culture that may or may not support compliance. Yes, there may be the periodic irrelevant report; however, if those reports grow into what can be called “noise,” there likely is something more problematic going on that requires the organization’s attention.

Where it is not working is the time it takes organizations to address an HR-related report. Here we continue to find that these cases are taking a median of 40-45 days to close. Most organizations will say that the reason is insufficient resources. This cannot continue. Social media outlets and plaintiff attorneys are now filling the time gap. Allegations of sexual harassment now need to be addressed in days not weeks.

To Be Successful, We Have to Work Together

Departments that represent the company to employees need to present a unified front. Internal rubs between departments, no matter how valid they may be, do not translate for employees who only want a safe and accessible way to report. Now is not the time to demotivate any employee who is willing to use one of our internal reporting channels. We have to work together.

For the good of our departments, our organizations and our people, it’s time to end this turf battle. Let’s decide that everybody takes everything and we put the right processes in place to appropriately, professionally and efficiently manage whatever we hear – however we hear it.

Download Report: 2018 Ethics & Compliance Hotline and Incident Management Benchmark Report 

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