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Your ultimate guide to workplace whistleblowing hotlines

Interested in safeguarding your organization against misconduct while fostering a culture of transparency and accountability? Discover why whistleblowing hotlines are crucial tools for promoting ethical standards and protecting your business’s reputation.

In this article, we’ll explore all you need to know about whistleblowing hotlines, including:

Ready? Let’s go.

Let’s take this back to basics: what is a whistleblowing hotline?

Simply put, a whistleblowing hotline is a service that helps employees and others report malpractice and unlawful or unethical behavior within the workplace.

Historically, the term “whistleblowing hotline” referred to a telephone-based reporting service. It is now used as a collective term to describe all forms of whistleblowing systems, including online whistleblowing.

A whistleblowing hotline is also known as…

Whistleblowing hotlines are often referred to by other names, including:

  • Whistleblower hotline
  • Whistleblowing system
  • Speak-up line
  • Ethics line
  • Confidential reporting system
  • Security line
  • Fraud line
  • Loss-prevention line
  • Helpline

Many organizations choose to name or “brand” their hotline to reflect its desired purpose, or to encourage only certain types of whistleblowing reports.

Whistleblower meaning: defining a whistleblower

To properly understand the role of a whistleblower hotline, it’s important to understand exactly what a whistleblower is. Our “Why is Whistleblowing Important?” article defines the role of a whistleblower and the importance of having a whistleblowing process in your organization.

To summarize, a whistleblower is someone who speaks up about a potential breach of rules or a problem, typically this will be in the context of a workplace. More and more, we’re also seeing whistleblowing hotlines be used by third parties to report potential issues across the supply chain – and issue gaining traction with regulatory bodies around the world, in addition to increased social attention to issues like human rights and environmental impacts of the supply chain.

This person would then report what they’ve found through a reporting channel (such as a whistleblower hotline),, bringing the problem to light and giving the organization the information needed to start an investigation.

The legal definition of a whistleblower, for the purposes of legal protection, can vary from one country to another. Learn more about whistleblower protection laws across the globe here.

Why implement a whistleblower hotline?

There are many driving factors which make the implementation of a whistleblowing hotline an important and worthwhile task. If you find yourself asking whether your organization needs to implement its own hotline, you should consider the factors below and the positive effects a comprehensive whistleblowing procedure can have on your company’s culture.

Comply with laws and regulations

A whistleblowing hotline can help an organization comply with its legal and regulatory responsibilities.

The provision of confidential reporting channels, like a whistleblowing hotline, are a key feature of many whistleblower protection laws, such as the EU Whistleblower Protection Directive.

In the UK, whistleblowing channels are one of the six adequate procedures recommended by the UK Department of Justice for an organization to prevent bribery and comply with the UK Bribery Act of 2010.

Protect employees

Organizations often introduce whistleblower hotlines to allow employees to raise issues they may feel uncomfortable discussing with a manager, such as sexual or racial discrimination, or information that might incriminate a peer.

This can help expose important issues that would otherwise remain undisclosed and help reassure employees that their concerns are taken seriously.

Gather risk intelligence

For most organizations, there is no better information source than its employees who are often the first to experience issues and can act as the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” for workplace issues.

But corrupt and illegal behavior often goes undetected because employees fear the consequences of reporting them through existing internal channels.

Implemented correctly, a whistleblowing hotline can be a powerful tool in exposing illegal or unethical behavior. Organizations therefore often place a high value on the risk intelligence that an effective hotline can provide.

Reputational reasons

Protecting brand reputation is often a key motivator when a business chooses to introduce a whistleblowing hotline.

If employees or third parties do not have access to a reporting channel provided by the organization, they may choose to use alternative public channels, such as going to the press or taking legal action. And while external reporting should not be discouraged, internal reporting gives organizations the ability to address issues earlier and avoid potential exposure of misconduct to the public.

A whistleblowing hotline can give an organization early insight into potential issues and reduce the likelihood of damaging information reaching the public domain.

What are the key features of an effective whistleblowing hotline?

Whistleblowing hotlines come in many shapes and sizes, but the most successful ones share several common features.

  1. Accessibility:  Employees have easy access to the service by telephone, web, smartphone, or in person, on a 24/7/365 basis. Native language services are provided where required and considered a best practice to encourage reports in the language reporters feel most comfortable speaking.
  2. Confidentiality: Where national law allows, employees can report their concerns anonymously and in confidence and are kept informed on case progress, if they wish.
  3. Security and compliance: The hotline is compliant with all legislation, including data protection and privacy laws, in all territories it covers. Policies are current and accessible.
  4. Visibility: New and existing employees are made aware of the service. Processes are in place to reinforce awareness through training and communication campaigns.
  5. Measurability:  Reporting data tracks the performance of the hotline service and identifies areas of concern within the business. Performance is benchmarked against peers where possible.
  6. Management support: The hotline and supporting program is supported by a positive ‘tone from the top’. There is a zero-tolerance approach to whistleblower retaliation.

Many organizations make their hotline available to other stakeholders, like third-party suppliers and partners. This can provide an opportunity to gather even more data about potential risks to the organization.

What kinds of whistleblowing hotlines exist?

Digital whistleblowing hotlines

Digital whistleblowing hotlines are channels allowing people to report concerns online through a web-based whistleblowing hotline service. The main advantage is this solution very easily enables whistleblower anonymity, a key factor for encouraging people to report suspicions without the fear of retaliation or reprisal. They also allow a whistleblower to attach files, both text and images, as potential evidential material.

Online whistleblowing hotlines also keep all data in one place, and most importantly, secure, in full compliance with GDPR and other applicable laws such as the EU Whistleblower Protection Directive. Compliance can be a built-in part of the whistleblowing hotline software, making the burden of compliance somewhat lighter for the organization. Finally, whistleblower case management and user activity can be logged as an automatic functionality within digital whistleblowing hotlines.

Phone-based whistleblowing hotlines

Phone-based whistleblowing hotlines allow people to report via a regular phone call to the appointed whistleblowing champion. While, like digital channels, they can be made available 24/7/365 and allow some amount of anonymity, they are less secure as the information cannot be encrypted all the way from the whistleblower to the receiver of the message.

Internally staffed, phone-based whistleblowing hotlines are less cost-efficient because they do not allow integrated case follow-up, meaning information will have to be manually logged. Since they do not allow a range of devices to be used, they are also less user-friendly. However, in countries where internet access is not widespread, or for employee groups who are not used to writing, phone-based whistleblowing hotlines are important to have available.

Face-to-face whistleblowing

Face-to-face whistleblowing is an “open door” option and different from traditional whistleblowing hotlines. It is a way for a manager or other superior to show the whistleblower their concerns are being taken seriously, and information should be reported to those who have the responsibility and skills for dealing with whistleblowing cases. While the whistleblower receives immediate feedback, there is no automatic data protection and no efficient case follow-up. Clearly, there is no anonymity in this kind of whistleblowing, requiring a huge amount of trust between the parties concerned, a clear disadvantage compared with other whistleblowing hotlines.

However, it is important to note that open-door whistleblowing is an important part of a speak up culture and should be made available and encouraged throughout the organization as a way to ensure concerns are addressed early based on feedback.

Whistleblower email address and inbox

Whistleblower email address and inboxes are another form of whistleblowing hotline some organizations opt for. While they are simple and inexpensive to set up, they come with significant risks. Emails cannot be fully encrypted, so data is insecure, placing the organization at risk of non-compliance with legal requirements. Messages may also be read and tampered with by unauthorized parties as they pass between hands.

This lack of security significantly reduces the trust that potential whistleblowers will have in such a form of whistleblowing hotline, thus reducing the likelihood they will report concerns. Finally, as with telephone reporting, email whistleblowing does not come with integrated case follow-up and management, making this not only a risky but also an inefficient form of whistleblowing hotline.

5 key components of a whistleblowing hotline system

Communication about the whistleblowing hotline system

A whistleblower hotline is all but useless if your employees are not aware of it. Communication with all groups of people to whom the organization is making the whistleblowing hotline service available is essential. It can include ‘how to’ guidelines, a whistleblowing policy, re-emphasis of the organization’s code of conduct and more.

The aim of such communication is to set the whistleblowing hotline service in the context of the organization’s broader ethics and anti-corruption work, to create trust, and thereby encourage people to use the hotline if they suspect improper behavior. Whistleblowing hotline service communication will:

  • Answer what, where, when why and how of the whistleblowing hotline service? What is a whistleblowing matter, what is not? Where can people find the channel to report? When is the whistleblowing service available? Why should people bother, why can they trust the whistleblowing hotline service? How can they make a report?
  • Describe the case management process. What happens to complaints, how will they be followed up, escalated and investigated?
  • Detail who will manage the report. Who are the members of the whistleblowing team, and why?

Explain that the whistleblower can report anonymously and remain anonymous throughout any follow-up dialogue and process if they so choose. Also explain if they are comfortable with open whistleblowing (revealing their identity), they will be protected from any retaliation. Potential whistleblowers should also be informed about their rights, the rights of the accused, how data is handled and how the whistleblowing hotline software keeps the data secure.

The whistleblowing hotline itself

This is the channel for reporting complaints, and it must be an easy-to-use whistleblowing hotline to remove all barriers to a potential report being made. A serious whistleblower probably makes a report only once, and they often have great concerns about doing so. Help them and encourage reports by making the process as simple, and the channel as accessible as possible, and allow them to start a dialogue as an anonymous whistleblower. Allow multi-lingual reporting so employees and other stakeholders can use their native language when reporting. Ensure the whistleblowing hotline has the functionality for adding evidential material to the case.

A whistleblowing hotline investigative team

When a report comes through the whistleblowing hotline, this is the group of people appointed to receive and manage whistleblowing cases. They will decide whether cases should be escalated, to whom, and whether external experts need to be added into the investigation process. They should have relevant competencies from multiple functions across the organization, and training to handle ethically sensitive issues. With our customers, we often see roles from HR, compliance, finance and sustainability, as well as non-executive members of the board. This whistleblowing hotline team should be as small as possible but contain more than one person for reliability and impartiality reasons.

A whistleblowing case management tool

This is the place within the whistleblowing hotline system where cases are processed. It should seamlessly integrate with the system for efficient follow-up and on-going dialogue with a whistleblower. To help the whistleblowing team manage and investigate cases correctly, it should be intuitive, and provide a structure for the most appropriate steps to be taken throughout the process. To be fully compliant with applicable legal requirements, such as the GDPR, the whistleblowing hotline case management tool should include case archiving and deleting functionality.

Whistleblowing hotline software

Underpinning and enabling the entire whistleblowing hotline system is a robust whistleblowing hotline software solution. Market-leading whistleblowing hotline providers today ensure their solutions contain the strictest security settings to ensure data privacy and security, in compliance with all. At the same time, the solution should enable you to control your own data and allow you to monitor that your whistleblowing hotline system is not accessible to any unauthorized persons.

The four characteristics of successful whistleblowing hotlines

Secure and anonymous

Whistleblowing hotline systems contain sensitive, personal and potentially criminal data. Everywhere in the world, this type of data is very strictly regulated, so keeping the data safe and identities untraceable has to be a priority consideration for any whistleblowing hotline system. Security needs to permeate the platform it runs on, data storage solutions, software applications, access rights, archiving and deleting and more.

Ensure your whistleblowing hotline provider has the highest security certifications and functionality across the system, that they regularly stress-check the system for security vulnerabilities, and that they follow security development closely and continuously, and keep your whistleblowing hotline software up to date. 

Legally compliant

Data protection laws have very real implications for whistleblowing hotline systems as they regulate how criminal and personal data is to be handled. However, data protection and whistleblower protection regulations vary from country to country, making compliance monitoring complex.

When selecting a whistleblowing hotline service, ensure it has regulatory compliance already embedded into the system to help you keep abreast of changing laws. As an investigative team, you want to be confident \ your whistleblowing hotline service helps you process and investigate cases without breaking the law. 


If a whistleblower is considering using a whistleblowing hotline, they generally want to act in the best interests of the organization. They observe suspected misconduct, and they want to do something about it, but they may not want to be involved in whatever happens thereafter.

Often a whistleblower is a person who is very close to where the improper behavior is happening, so taking that step to make a report is often fraught with worry, as mentioned earlier. This is why your whistleblowing hotline needs to make taking the first step as simple as possible – otherwise, you risk not receiving the much-needed tips that enable you to act early.

One way to do this is to ensure the whistleblowing hotline is device neutral, i.e., that people can use a mobile phone or other device to make a report, removing the need to find a private space in the workplace. And while the whistleblowing hotline interface should be intuitive, users should also receive training that is linked to your code of conduct. 

An integrated part of the business ethics work

Whistleblowing hotlines work best when positioned within the organization’s ethics work. While a hotline is not the sole weapon in an organization’s anti-corruption, anti-fraud or anti-discrimination fight, there’s no doubt that it is an effective preventive tool and an integral, reinforcing part in any organization’s efforts to become an ethical and transparent brand.

Doing so shows an organization’s stakeholders it is serious about both enforcing and following-up on its code of conduct, demonstrating those values, and promoting a culture of compliance and the highest business ethics. It also gives employees the opportunity to do their part and be accountable by reporting in good faith anything they suspect through a trusted whistleblowing hotline.

How can organizations put a whistleblower hotline in place?

Many organizations operate their own internal hotline, which may be managed by the HR department, legal counsel, or other internally appointed individual or team. This can present significant challenges around trust and confidentiality, particularly in organizations where employees are fearful of retaliation.

Organizations have many reasons to combine or replace their hotline with an independent, third-party service like NAVEX Whistleblowing & Incident Management. It allows employees to report their concerns through independent, secure channels, along with many other benefits, including 24/7/365 access, multilingual coverage, analytics, and case management tools.

At NAVEX, we have years of experience in the implementation of whistleblowing hotlines as part of our overall ethics and compliance service.

No matter the size or geography of your business, NAVEX has you covered with a variety of hotline and incident management solutions to meet your current and future needs. Ready to learn more?

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