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The Importance of Staff-Friendly Compliance Hotline Intake Methods

It’s always important to first analyze the actual workplace incident. Consider the following workplace incident examples I’ve encountered as a corporate investigator:

  • An employee and her supervisor are taken to a holiday dinner by a vendor who presents the supervisor with a small gift and card. The supervisor opens the card after dinner and finds cash inside. The supervisor “assumed it was a mistake” and decided to keep the money. The coworker present at dinner chose not to report their concern about the gift and accepted (even though it was against company policy) because they were not sure whether the concern would be anonymous.
  • An HR officer learned third-hand that an employee had threatened to take the life of his supervisor because he (the supervisor) was allegedly providing more overtime to his girlfriend than others. Later it was found the person had brought a gun to work and showed it to others several days before he was notified. When asked why it wasn’t reported earlier, two staff members aware of the issue tell the investigator they did not want to talk to management about it in person or over the phone (the only two methods then available for reporting workplace concerns.)
  • A member of the overnight safety staff in a small factory reports consistent mechanical problems with a particular machine, but their supervisor fails to share the concern with senior management using the forms available. Weeks later the plant burns to the ground when the machine catches fire.
  • Several staff members of a tight-knit engineering company observe a coworker staying late, making a large number of copies, and entering offices that belong to others. While seeming odd to the staff, no one shares their observation directly with management, and there is no anonymous hotline. Months later it’s discovered that the intellectual property for the company’s main project is being used by an overseas competitor. The company loses millions in investment and potential revenue. Those jobs of those same employees who failed to share their concerns are being eliminated due to cost-cutting requirements directly related to the incident.

These are just a few real-life examples of incidents I’ve encountered as a corporate investigator. In every case, staff members had concerns but did not feel comfortable with the existing methods in place for speaking up, which included forms and “internal hotlines” that were often just a voicemail.

How Do Managers of Compliance and Human Resources Protect Their Staff, Company & Reputation?

 One key solution is to ensure that the “voice of the workforce” is strong and actively contributes to building a better workplace world.

When it comes to effective mitigation of incidents related to lapses in ethics, compliance, safety, or security in the workplace there are a few core issues to keep in mind:

Is Leadership Setting the Example?

A Code of Conduct and/or policy that speaks to expectations for ethics in the workplace, as well as expectations for when and how to share concerns about ethics, safety, security, or fraud issues, is just the start. Senior leaders must set the example by ensuring that expectations for ethical conduct are weaved into regular employee communications, processes, and culture. Front-line supervisors must back this up by ensuring that behaviors that are in line with an ethical culture are rewarded, and failures to live up to expectations are provided as learning opportunities.

Does a Review of Investigations or Root Cause Analysis Indicate Issues Have Evolved into Costly Incidents?

Is this because opportunities to intervene and mitigate to prevent escalation was missed due to lack of reporting, either in person or via a hotline system?

Are Investigative Results Clearly Communicated to the Workforce?

It’s extremely rare when, for example, a significant incident of fraud or harassment goes unnoticed by the workforce. Making necessary changes to the policy, training, and/or procedures and clear communication of first the “why” and then the “how” are critical to maintaining a positive focus on ethics in the workplace.

How Does Your Staff Choose to Communicate on Their Own?

Increasingly, today’s digital workforce chooses to communicate in an impersonal fashion. Conversations are occurring less and less in person or via telephone calls. This is even truer in the increasingly digital workplace, where timely reporting can lose out to other online activities. This trend is not going away anytime soon. How do your processes and procedures account for this generational change and the likelihood of missing out on reports because methods have not kept pace?

Have you updated your approach to methods for training and awareness programs for ethics, compliance, safety, and security in the workplace? Just as with an increase in the use of apps and texting instead of calls and in-person discussion, Ethics and Compliance officers must consider changes to how today’s workforce prefers to learn. What was once yearly training consisting of a few handouts and boring slide presentations has necessarily evolved in recent years in favor of dynamic, interactive web-based videos and even virtual reality-based systems.

Is the Case Management Engine That Helps Run the Investigative and Resolution Process Getting the Right Fuel?

Does that system place as much importance on the response process as on fueling that process with timely, relevant, and actionable observations from the workforce?  Put another way, have dashboard features become overgrown, while the number of reports from staff have stayed the same or declined? If so, does more focus need to be given to the “fuel” for your hotline, and less focus and money spent on an overbuilt and underutilized case management system?

An effective Compliance software solution begins with an appreciation that the “voice of the workforce” is critical to preventing serious incidents. Likewise, saving time and effort when responding to lapses in ethics, compliance, safety or security means keeping up with how the workforce prefers to share their voice. The pace of change in the digital workplace, and with the digital-first workforce, requires leaders to consider the impacts of evolving cultural and technology norms on a speak-up culture, including (and in many cases beginning with) hotline intake methods.

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