Kusserow’s Corner: Tips on Making a Hotline a More Effective Communication Tool

Having an effective hotline program is a must for any effective compliance program. The operative word is “effective.”  Many have hotlines for their employees, but the supporting program is not effective. If an organization institutes a hotline as a formality but really doesn’t want the hotline to do much, it is making a grave error. It should be a priority to bring complaints and allegations of wrongdoing in-house. The alternative is to drive such information externally to government agencies, litigating attorneys, media, etc., and that can only spell trouble. Receiving and resolving issues internally is the right approach, and is good for the organization on many levels. Failing to do so can result in potential liabilities, headaches, and a lot of remedial work.

In order to ensure effectiveness of the complaint reporting system, as well as to prevent external involvement and claims of retaliation, it is important to promote a culture that encourages employees to raise concerns and report perceived problems. Managers should be counseled that employees’ complaints are opportunities for improvement in the organization. As with other activity protected by law, such as discrimination, health, safety, or environmental complaints, coworkers and supervisors must be trained that their initial and instinctive reaction to complaints must not be resentment or hostility. Instead, they should thank the person making the report, follow up in a non-threatening way, and be extra careful to refrain from doing anything that might be interpreted as retaliatory. By maintaining such a culture, employees will be more comfortable in raising concerns informally and resolving matters within the company’s management structure, ultimately lessening the need to resort to “whistleblowing” to external parties.

If there are employees who are known to have reported issues or made complaints, the Compliance Officer should check back with them 60 or 90 days later, to make sure that they do not feel that they have been retaliated against and make a record of the follow-up check. If an employee reports retaliation, it raises a potential liability that needs to be addressed by an investigation.

A confidential recordkeeping system should be maintained to enable a review of employment history for those employees who have raised concerns or reported problems.  This can be used as evidence that the individual was not treated improperly subsequent to reporting.  Examples of things that would evidence no retaliation or negative repercussions from reporting could include their continued employment, timely pay raises, training opportunities made available, no promotions withheld, and other favorable treatment of employees after they made a formal report. Having such information will enable the organization to evidence its favorable treatment of whistleblowers. This is important if there were any adverse action brought, such as a claim of retaliation or discrimination due to reporting a potential problem, to show that the adverse action was an unrelated and legitimate job performance or misconduct factor issue. As in other areas of employment law, maintaining contemporaneous documentation of poor performance and misconduct is crucial to demonstrating that unlawful retaliation has not occurred.

It is extremely important to have written guidelines relating to the use of the Hotline for both the Code of Conduct and policy documents. These should include policies on (a) Hotline Operations, (b) Duty to Report, (c) Non-Retaliation, (d) Anonymity, (e) Confidentiality, and (f) Investigations of Complaints, among others.

Other tips on making your hotline more effective:

  1. Have a poster on the employee bulletin boards about the availability and use of the hotline.
  2. Ensure the hotline number and its availability is included in new employee orientation.
  3. Have supporting policies/procedures for the hotline.
  4. Have information about the use of the hotline made part of the Employee Handbook.
  5. Consider having a flyer go out to all employees on the availability of the hotline.
  6.  If there is an Intranet for employee use, include information about the hotline.
  7. If there is an organization newsletter, use it to promote the hotline.

Richard P. Kusserow served as DHHS Inspector General for 11 years. He currently is CEO of Strategic Management Services, LLC (SM), a firm that has assisted more than 3,000 organizations and entities with compliance related matters. The SM sister company, CRC, provides a wide range of compliance tools including sanction-screening.

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Copyright © 2014 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.