What is a whistleblowing hotline?

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What is a whistleblowing hotline? A Definition

whistleblowing hotline is part of a whistleblowing system or process that is set up by a business, organisation, charity, or government body.

The whistleblowing system or process is designed to help employees, volunteers, and others, to report wrongdoing, illegal or unethical behaviour that is occurring within the workplace.

The term ‘whistleblowing hotline’ originates in the pre-digital era and originally referred simply to a telephone reporting line.  With the advent of digital technology and the Internet the term is now used as a catch-all to describe all forms of whistleblowing contact, including the submission of online forms, emails, and voicemails, as well as the still heavily used telephone itself.

To properly understand why an organisation might want to set up a whistleblowing hotline, see our article ‘5 solid reasons to have a robust external whistleblowing reporting system’.

The term ‘Whistleblowing Hotline’ is sometimes known by other names…

Sometimes businesses and organisations will shy away from the term ‘whistleblowing’ because they believe it might imply there is wrongdoing within their industry.

Equally, there are industries that want to be even more explicit than the term whistleblowing hotline suggests, using words like ‘fraud’ and ‘safeguarding’.  Businesses and organisations in this bracket often take a ‘does what it says on the tin’ approach to be absolutely clear what they are trying to prevent.

Of course, there is no absolute answer to what a whistleblowing hotline should be called… it simply depends on the sensitivities of the corporate culture within the organisation.

Some other alternative names for whistleblowing hotlines that are often heard are…

  • Whistleblowing line
  • Whistleblowing system
  • Whistleblowing helpline
  • Whistleblowing
  • Anonymous reporting system
  • Anonymous hotline
  • Confidential reporting system
  • Confidential hotline
  • Speak-up line
  • Speak-up hotline
  • Ethics hotline
  • Ethics line
  • Security hotline
  • Fraud line
  • Fraud prevention line
  • Fraud hotline
  • Loss prevention line
  • Employee hotline service

In addition…

Many businesses and organisations will name or ‘brand’ their whistleblowing system to reflect their desire to show they are taking active steps to prevent wrongdoing.

Who would use a whistleblowing hotline?

The legal definition of a whistleblower varies depending on the country they are reporting from, but in essence, a whistleblower brings information about potential wrongdoing to light and gives the organisation the opportunity to start investigating the matter.

A whistleblower is usually an employee or volunteer, who speaks up when they observe or learn of potential rule breaking, wrongdoing, or illegality within their organisation.

This potential wrongdoing might concern fraud, bribery, sexism, racism, age or ability discrimination, shaming, bullying or even violence.

Whistleblowers usually report incidents that take place within the place they work or the supply chains or networks they work within.

The whistleblower speaks up via a reporting channel the organisation has put in place.  This reporting channel might include land-line telephone, mobile phone, smartphone, webpage, tablet, voicemail, email or even a good old-fashioned letter.

Why Implement a Whistleblowing Hotline?

Specific driving factors behind the implementation of a whistleblowing hotline vary from organisation to organisation, but there are five general characteristics that prompt the need for a whistleblowing process or system to be put in place.

They are:

  • Legislation or Governance
  • An incident has happened
  • An incident is happening
  • Prevention of an incident that might be happening
  • Deterrence of potential incidents

Let us take each of these factors in turn…

Legislation or Governance

There are many situations where a business, organisation, charity or government body might be compelled by legislation or a governing body to implement a whistleblowing hotline.  Two examples of this are the EU Whistleblowing Directive that came into effect in December 2021, and the forth coming German Supply Chain Due Diligence Act of 2023.

The driver in this case is clear-cut.  It is the need to be compliant with the Law or the governing body.

An incident has happened

It is sometimes the case that after a major incidence of wrongdoing has occurred and any resultant tribunals and fines have been issued, a business, organisation, charity or government body will implement a whistleblowing hotline.

The driver is the need to help prevent any future malpractice or wrongdoing and show that the lesson has been learnt.

An incident is happening

Sometimes it is necessary to implement a whistleblowing hotline because it is a clear and positive response to a wrongdoing incident that is happening at that very moment.

The driver is the need to show to employees and internal and external stakeholders that immediate action is being taken.

Prevention of an incident that might be happening

On occasion there might be an awareness that some level of potential wrongdoing is happening, but that there is no proof.  By installing a whistleblowing hotline, the management of the organisation is acting to try to bring any issues out into the open. In this case the adoption of a whistleblowing channel is designed to give confidence to the whistleblower that their report will be taken seriously.

The driver is the need to establish whether there is an issue at all, and if there is, to expose it.

Deterrence of potential incidents

The final general driver is deterrence.  Many industries or sectors can be seen to have an element of temptation to them, or an inclination toward solving situations by short-cuts or force.  Fully operational and active whistleblowing hotlines act as a direct deterrent to any wrongdoing.

The driver here is to deter any wrongdoing before it has even occurred.

Anonymous whistleblowing, semi-anonymous whistleblowing and named whistleblowing reports

Although whistleblowing can be by named or semi-anonymous individuals, the option to make anonymous calls to a whistleblowing hotline is essential to any whistleblowing policy and process.

It is essential because the safety of the whistleblower is paramount, and in some workplaces any identification of the whistleblower might result in retaliation from colleagues.

Indeed, the provision of a confidential reporting channel is a key feature of many whistleblower protection laws and codes of conduct.

It is important to have a clear and effective whistleblowing policy in place. Take a look at our free whistleblowing policy template.

How does a confidential whistleblowing hotline benefit a business or organisation?

  1. It protects employees.

Whistleblowing hotlines allow employees to raise issues that they might find uncomfortable raising with their manager.  These issues might include fraud, sexism, racism, ageism, or other discrimination that could incriminate their colleagues.

  1. It allows managers to gather intelligence that can be used to assess risk.

Good intelligence is essential to deterring or successfully handling wrongdoing in the workplace, and there is no better source of information than employees who work there… but only if the employees do not live in fear of the consequences.

  1. It protects the company’s reputation.

Employees that do not have access to a confidential speak-up channel, are far more likely to a) say nothing, or b) use a public channel such as the press or social media.  By offering confidentiality employers are both more likely to hear about any potential wrongdoing and safeguard themselves against public exposure in a channel they are less able to influence.

What are the key features of a successful whistleblowing hotline?

  • Accessible

Easy access to the hotline by telephone, web, mobile phone/smartphone, tablet, physical address or in person, on a 24/7/365 basis.

  • Multiple languages

Reports can be taken from the whistleblower in their native language where required.  This might be via a bi-lingual call handler or through a translator.

  • The whistleblower has the option of confidentiality

Whistleblowers should be able to report any issues anonymously wherever possible.  They should also have the right to be kept informed of any report progress.

  • Secure

The whistleblowing hotline provider, and any services provided, should be compliant with all legislation, including GDPR, data protection and privacy laws, wherever the hotline call is taken from.  All policies and certification should be kept current and accessible to both the business or organisation employing the provider, and to the whistleblower themselves.

  • The confidential hotline service should be visible

All employees, whether existing or new, should be made aware of the service and the reasons for using it. Regular reinforcement through communications and training should be used to maintain awareness.

  • Reporting should be measurable

All reporting data and information should be stored, measurable, and capable of being benchmarked and assessed against other anonymous whistleblowing data from the employer’s commercial peers.

  • Management ‘buy-in’

Any whistleblowing hotline, training and communications to employees must be acknowledged as important to the financial and reputational health of the organisation; and any resultant reports treated fairly, without bias, and most importantly, without retaliation to the whistleblower if self-identified or if circumstances identify them.

  • Extends into supply chains and networks

Third-party suppliers and partners are often invited to utilise whistleblowing hotlines. This enables the employer to have an even wider view of potential risk.

How to implement a whistleblowing hotline

Many businesses and organisations have their own internal whistleblowing policy and hotlines.  They are often managed by their own internal staff – usually by the General Counsel, from the HR department or a specifically designated team. 

This presents some trust and confidentiality issues in a potential whistleblowers mind.  Is everything they say really confidential?  What happens if members of the HR team are also friends with someone who is the focus of a whistleblowing report?

There is also a cost-time-overhead implication.  When it comes to such a niche responsibility there are very few people who fully understand how best to implement or maintain a whistleblowing system.

That is why most ethics reporting systems are outsourced to a handful of whistleblowing service providers.

Whistleblowing hotline providers are experts in their field and can advise you on costs, process, implementation, communications, and reporting statistic. Providers such as Safecall can have a confidential hotline up-and-running for you within 24-hours. We are also able to provide initial advice and offer a free whistleblower policy template.

For the most common whistleblowing hotline implementation questions Safecall are asked, see our article ‘The 10 Most Frequent Whistleblowing Hotline Implementation Questions we get Asked’.

Choosing an external whistleblowing hotline service

Outsourcing your whistleblower helpline to an external service provider is a common approach by many organisations. It’s usually handled internally by either a General Counsel or an HR Director or HR Manager.

Whistleblowing service providers, ethics hotline service providers or whistleblowing service vendors… whatever phrase is used… they tend to fall into three main categories:

Corporate hotline providers

These are large, global companies that provide a whistleblowing helpline as part of a wide range of interlocking ESG (Environmental Social Governance) services.

The positives from going with a corporate is that everything has been designed to work seamlessly together.

But there are several negatives too.

Firstly, the cost.

Yes, many of these Ethics hotline service providers will help you implement a whistleblowing helpline, but their whistleblowing service is designed to work best when used alongside all their additional ESG products and service modules… and this can vastly increase the overall costs.

Secondly, these are corporates, and many are truly global in size.

That means the purchase of a single whistleblowing service, whilst it might be a ‘considered purchase’ for the customer, is relatively small in terms of revenue for the provider. And this can often correspond to a lower level of customer service, often through large call centres that are not necessarily even in the same geographical region.

And thirdly, there has been an increased pressure to divert whistleblowers toward making online whistleblowing reports rather than talking to a call-handler through a whistleblower hotline.

Whilst understandable from a corporate point-of-view – it reduces a providers’ overheads if you can reduce the human element – it can also severely limit the amount of information that is forthcoming from the whistleblower. And the less factual information that is gained through reporting, the less chance there is that any potential wrongdoing can be resolved.

In other words… the inherent value of having a whistleblowing hotline – that a human being is available to get the maximum possible information from a report – is potentially being marginalised to limit the providers costs.

Small whistleblowing service providers

There are also several whistleblowing app and website only providers that are now available.

The positives of using these providers are that the reporting channels are all optimised for use on mobile phones, and very nearly every employee has one of these.

They’re usually cheap too, and that makes them ideal if the buyer is simply conducting a tick-box exercise.

But it’s a false economy if the customer is actually looking to prevent or minimise reputational damage from wrongdoing in their organisation.

It’s false for three reasons…

  1. Many national whistleblowing legislations specifically require businesses and organisations to have both online and oral channels to report potential wrongdoing in the workplace.

That means the lack of a telephone hotline, or even the provision of voicemail is simply not compliant.

  1. Even if the provider does have a hotline, their main channel is online whistleblowing, so it’s not necessarily staffed to appropriate levels because they want to discourage reporting through this channel.
  2. Small providers have a tendency to fail or be bought out, with all the attendant problems associated with this for the customer.

Dedicated whistleblowing hotline providers

The best of these external providers – often called hotline vendors in the US – are whistleblowing experts in the truest sense of the phrase.

They offer highly specialised whistleblowing advice and ethics hotline guidance – often bespoke – to businesses and organisations.

The positives of using a dedicated whistleblowing service provider are that the customer is guaranteed to be given the best possible advice because it’s their sole focus.

They show the customer how to:

  1. Implement a legally compliant whistleblowing policy
  2. Implement the whistleblowing system and whistleblowing processes
  3. Promote the whistleblowing channels and hotline to employees
  4. Train any whistleblowing report managers
  5. Triage reports
  6. Investigate incidents correctly
  7. Provide a range of additional whistleblowing investigation support to help handle and resolve particularly difficult cases

There are downsides.

A dedicated employee hotline service provider will not be the cheapest… but they will be the most reliable, and they will put the customer and the customers’ employees first because it’s their reason for existing.

And because they are specialists, they offer a single whistleblowing system, rather than a module that is part of a wider ESG package.

Looking for a whistle blower policy template?

Implementing a clear whistleblowing policy encourages a culture where concerns are raised early.

This makes it easier for employers to address concerns and potentially prevent serious wrongdoing and reputational damage before being reported to regulatory bodies or the press.

Safecall have a years of experience and expertise working within the Whistleblowing industry and we have put together a free whistle blower policy template just for you.

Download your FREE Whistleblowing Policy Template

Need to Talk to a Whistleblowing System Expert?

Call us on +44 (0) 191516 7720

If you need to give us more detailed information about your business, get in touch.