Kusserow on Compliance: Why encourage anonymous hotline calls?

The are in your best interest

Encouraging anonymity with hotline callers may at first seem a bad practice, however, it is not.  It is a sound policy and in the best interest of the organization. However, many believe no calls should be accepted without an individual disclosing his or her identity. Those individuals are wrong. First, the HHS OIG, Sentencing Commission, DOJ, and Sarbanes-Oxley Act all promote anonymous reporting. The OIG in its compliance guidance state “At a minimum, comprehensive compliance programs should include…a hotline, to receive complaints, and the adoption of procedures to protect the anonymity of complainants and to protect whistleblowers from retaliation.  Failing to provide for and encourage anonymity undercuts the perceived effectiveness of the compliance program. There are other positive reasons for having anonymous reporting:

  1. Not allowing anonymity discourages reporting for fear of becoming a victim of retribution or retaliation. The result is that an individual may give information to someone else like an attorney, the media, government agencies, or simply not tell anyone which may lead to a growing exposure to liability to the organization. As a rule, the more serious the complaint or allegation, the less likely callers will be willing to identify themselves.
  2. The disclosure of an individual’s identity creates a burden for the organization to protect the caller’s identity (“confidentiality) once it is known. Failure to protect identified callers may result in unprotected reprisals or retaliation and serious consequences for the organization that may draw in attorneys, government, and regulatory agencies. There are many cases of litigation for reprisals or wrongful discharge where the company was put in the awkward position of trying to evidence the call did not contribute to the adverse action or termination. This is not a burden if the caller was anonymous.
  3. It is also useful to keep in mind that many callers may want to self-disclose their identity, in order to achieve a protection as a “Whistleblower” to forestall performance or conduct-based actions by trying to invoke the organization’s non-retribution/non-reprisal policy. For some, calling the hotline may be an attempt to block the adverse personnel action.

In some cases, it is desirable, and perhaps even necessary, to learn the identity of the caller in order to properly act on the information offered. There are circumstances where having the identity is essential to act upon a serious allegation. In such cases, callers can be encouraged to identify themselves, noting that their confidentiality will be protected. As such, it is important to also have a Confidentiality Policy, along with the Anonymity Policy.  Both such policies are called for in the OIG compliance guidance documents.

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 © 2020 Strategic Management Services, LLC. Published with permission.