Joseph Agins (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Institutional Compliance Officer for Sam Houston State University in Houston, Texas, USA.
Although assuming can be dangerous, I will assume everyone reading this has an anonymous reporting “hotline” or “helpline” program in their organization. So, which do you have? Many consider the two interchangeable. In fact, the SCCE’s Compliance Dictionary defines Hotlines/Helplines together as: “a common reporting system, administered in-house or by outside consultants, giving anonymous telephone access to employees seeking to report possible instances of wrongdoing.” So, are they the same?
I do not disagree with the aforementioned definition, because both program types contain the defined attributes. However, I feel there are distinct differences, and depending on how you want your program to perform, be perceived by employees, and support your organizational culture, said differences can matter.
A quick hotline story
The first hotline program I became involved with was very basic. It was a reporting system administered by an outside vendor, allowing employees to report (anonymously if desired) limited types of wrongdoing, such as fraud, accounting, and auditing matters. Few calls came in to this hotline, and I learned there was little to no awareness effort, save for the initial rollout years prior. It was, for lack of a better term, a check-the-box program. My job was to take this check-the-box program and turn it into a robust, value-added tool for employees and the organization. Thus began my journey.
We started by having large posters made with an image of the proverbial “red phone.” I thought this was really cool and cutting edge! The next poster campaign was a tad more subtle, featuring a businesswoman wearing bright red lipstick and a look of deep concern, holding a cell phone to her ear. At some point, we developed some swag, which included wallet cards, magnets, and even neat red pens emblazoned with the hotline number. (Did I mention we used a lot of red?)
The program improved, and I was proud of the gains we had made. We had brought the hotline out of the shadows. It was now easy to find, employees were using our hotline and for the right reasons. But, our benchmarking told us we were still not in line with the industry. The call numbers plateaued, and no matter how much we socialized it or changed up the branding, we could not seem to better our results. In retrospect, ours was a one-dimensional program. It was a reporting mechanism only—and a somewhat intimidating one at that.
Years later, a new chief ethics and compliance officer (CECO) encouraged me to move the hotline program in a new direction. He felt a “helpline” was more inviting and better connoted the possibility of two-way communication. He suggested a reporting program that also allowed for dialogue in the context of seeking advice on company policies, right behavior, and ethical choices within the organization. Wait a minute! No more red phone? No red pens? This disappointed me for a second, and then I thought, “Why didn’t I think of this?”
We began the rebranding to a helpline, focusing less on red phones and more on a safe place for employees to speak up, ask questions, and seek clarification. Our old hotline was a place to report fraud, theft, or financial misdoings, and that was it. Other calls, like misuses of resources, harassment, discrimination, conflicts of interest, etc., were turned away or directed elsewhere. But not anymore!
The new helpline invited the same concerns as the hotline, but connoted a place where other concerns, including relational concerns, counseling, and advice were on the table. Soon we not only met the numbers we expected from our benchmarking but exceeded them. This was an important lesson I would not forget.