An internal whistleblowing hotline (or ‘speak-up helpline’) can be a valuable part of your corporate governance toolkit. 

Implemented correctly, it can help expose wrongdoing within your organisation and provide useful intelligence to help you target potential risks.

Unfortunately, many internal hotlines fail – often as a result of poor implementation, limited management buy-in or employee mistrust.

Based on some of our clients’ own experiences, we’ve compiled some of the most common reasons why internal hotlines fail – and how to avoid the same mistakes.

1. Absence of clear ownership

Responsibility for monitoring, maintaining and reporting on the internal hotline usually falls to the Governance/Compliance department or, in some cases, Human Resources.

A failure to articulate departmental and individual ownership typically results in a neglected hotline service that is poorly monitored and rarely reported upon.

Without an incentive to drive the hotline’s effectiveness, it is likely that limited effort will be invested in promoting awareness among employees and developing service improvements.

Warning signs

  1. Confusion within the business about which department / person ‘owns’ hotline.
  2. Absence of board level ownership.

Solution

Ensure a manager or board member is made responsible for the hotline’s performance, integrity and effectiveness (in certain cases this may already be a regulatory requirement).

Consider linking the hotline’s performance to that individual’s personal objectives and remuneration package.

2. Employee mistrust

While most organisations would like to claim openness and honesty among their core values, the truth is often quite different.

In a 2011 survey of US workers, 46% of those who observed wrongdoing chose not to report it for fear of retaliation.

Despite the advancement of open working culture and business ethics, it’s clear that many still don’t trust their employer to listen to and act on their concerns.

In organisations where speaking up is viewed as undesirable, or that the risk of retaliation is significant, an internal hotline is unlikely to generate the reports or risk intelligence you’re looking for.

Warning signs

  1. Low volume of reports to the hotline.
  2. Suspicion among employees about how reports are used / processed.
  3. Fear of retaliation among employees.
  4. Colleagues afraid to challenge management.
  5. Disproportionately low number of reports received from specific areas of the organisation.

Solution

While changing organisational culture takes time, you can take meaningful steps to build trust your reporting process. This should include clear sanctions for acts of retaliation, evidence that reports are properly investigated, and the opportunity to report anonymously or confidentially.

You may also want to consider introducing an external, independent hotline alongside your internal process.

3. Flimsy report logging processes

It’s particularly common for internal whistleblowing hotlines reports to be logged via generic office software, such as an Excel spreadsheet.

While this provides a low-cost solution to report logging, it presents a range of limitations and risks including:

  • Poor security – Anyone with access to the file can view or amend its content
  • Single user access – Only one individual at a time can work on the file
  • Risk of data corruption – Data can be lost or corrupted with a misplaced keystroke
  • Administrative burden – All reports must be manually input and formatted
  • Limited reporting capability – Lack of automated reporting or trend analysis

Warning signs

  1. Reports take a long time to produce.
  2. It is difficult to spot reporting trends.
  3. People other than authorised recipients could access the data.
  4. It’s difficult to tell when data has been changed or deleted.

Solution

Consider introducing a case reporting system to log and process your reports. This will help protect the integrity of the data, provide a full user audit trail and make reporting easier.

More advanced systems may also offer features that allow you to pass online reports directly into the system, link related reports together and assign follow-up tasks to colleagues.

4. Ineffective promotion among employees

Do your colleagues know about your hotline?

It’s may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often organisations invest time and energy into setting up a hotline – but then fail to promote it effectively (this applies equally to external hotlines too).

Communications should take account of the various experiences of employees within the organisation. For instance, a staff room poster may be an appropriate promotional tool for office-based colleagues, but is unlikely to be seen by a field-based employee.

Similarly, is a new employee likely to see the emails and desk-toppers you handed out six months ago?

Ineffective or inconsistent messaging can also have a negative impact. The wrong tone is likely to discourage employees from using the hotline, while generalised messaging might generate too many reports about the wrong type of issue.

Warning signs

  1. Low volume of reports to the hotline.
  2. Wrong type of issue being reported to the hotline.
  3. No information about whistleblowing or the hotline in employee induction process.
  4. Information about the hotline is hard to find (eg. on the company intranet).
  5. Disproportionately low number of reports received from specific areas of the organisation.

Solution

Survey your colleagues to gauge awareness of your hotline. The results will help you develop an ongoing awareness campaign (you may want to get your internal communications team involved to help with this).

Think about how you can reach all of your colleagues to encourage them to report the issues you want to hear about.

5. Lack of management buy-in

Perhaps the most dangerous threat to an internal whistleblowing hotline of any kind – be it internal or external – is a lack of commitment from senior management.

Managerial indifference (or worse, resistance) can affect everything from the hotline’s funding and internal profile, to your colleagues’ trust in its effectiveness.

If employees feel the ‘tone from the top’ doesn’t value ethical behaviour, they will feel less inclined to speak up with their concerns.

A lack of management buy-in may also place limits on the time and investment afforded to running the hotline, processing the reports it receives and providing management information. This is likely to demotivate those responsible for maintaining the hotline, with inevitable consequences.

Warning signs

  1. Unrealistic limits placed on hotline resourcing.
  2. Limited time available to process reports.
  3. Rare requests for report MI from senior management.

Solution

Managerial challenges can be difficult to overcome, but a good starting point might be to research how your competitors approach the issue. Use networking opportunities or online forums to discuss the subject with your peers, or simply ‘listen in’ to what’s being said.

This offers a win-win scenario: if your competitors are introducing effective whistleblowing processes and you’re not, it’s a sure sign to your board that they’re behind the game; if the opposite is true you’re presenting them with an opportunity to differentiate and lead the industry.

Your hotline is your first line of defence

Many clients first contact us after finding their internal hotline doesn’t deliver the results they – or their shareholders – were hoping for.

In some cases though, that first contact follows a high-profile problem that has reached the public domain, or a damaging issue that has suddenly come to light internally.

An effective hotline can provide a vital first line of defence against regulatory censure, financial loss and reputational damage.

It won’t prevent isolated issues occurring but, with the right oversight and regular analysis, your whistleblowing hotline can help you identify and tackle risks before they escalate.

Discover how to introduce a whistleblowing hotline into your business