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4 reasons why whistleblowing telephone hotlines aren’t fit for purpose

In a digital world, whistleblowing telephone hotlines are no longer best practice.

Gerald Chifamba Gerald Chifamba

    When I think of telephone hotlines, one thing comes to mind in the UK: Crimewatch. The crime-stopping BBC show inspired a nation to speak up. Hotlines have since become very popular. However, the world has changed since Crimewatch first aired 34 years ago. Technology has changed the way we live, work and play. The days of phone books, pagers and payphones are long gone – just like our beloved Crimewatch.

    Despite this digital innovation, workplace hotlines remain largely untouched and still play a key role in many ethics and compliance programmes. However, just like the pager, hotlines are outdated and don’t provide solutions to today’s challenges and opportunities.

    Here are 4 reasons why hotlines are no longer fit for purpose and how new technology is helping companies identify areas of potential risk by empowering their staff to speak up.

    1. Voice calls are in decline

    We now live in a chat-based society. People are making fewer voice calls. This year, Ofcom even reported the first-ever drop in voice calls made on mobile phones in the UK. The decreasing number of phone calls is especially due to young people preferring to chat over instant message platforms instead of actual voice calls. The same young people will dominate the workforce, making up 75 per cent of employees globally by 2025. When at the same time taking into consideration that a recent IBE survey found younger employees are more likely to be aware of misconduct at work, it becomes evident that telephone hotlines represent a missed opportunity to find out about misconduct in organisations.

    Companies should encourage employees to speak up by providing a channel that adapts to the current communication situation in society, such as a digital whistleblowing solution. By neglecting digital channels, the risk of employees using more public digital channels (for example, social media) increases.

    2. Whistleblowing hotlines don’t guarantee quality

    Whistleblowing telephone hotlines are largely managed in call centres. Whenever people are involved, it’s impossible to guarantee a constant quality experience. We see it every day: 2 people call the same customer service number and come off the phone with opposing views on the quality of service. The same applies to whistleblowing hotlines. The subjectivity which is inevitable when call handlers are dealing with reports impacts the quality of reports.

    To ensure consistent quality standards, companies should choose a whistleblowing solution that ensures:

    • An intuitive digital reporting process
    • The ability to remain completely anonymous (without fearing that their voice, accent, etc. will give away their identity)
    • Time to prepare answers in advance and consider the wording carefully for both the reporter and the investigator
    • An easy 2-way communication with the whistleblower (even if they decide to remain anonymous). This allows the investigator to ask questions in case of ambiguities.

    Furthermore, tech solutions provide investigators:

    • Higher quality, more accurate reports, increasing efficiency
    • Opportunities to improve the process by collating useful data about how people complete the reporting process.

    Whistleblowing telephone hotlines are largely managed in call centres – this can impact the quality of reports.

    3. Hotlines seem cheaper until they aren’t

    Resources are tight in every department. Often, the cheapest option looks the most attractive. Ethics and Compliance departments are no different. Given the option between quickly setting up a telephone hotline or investing in a digital system, the much cheaper hotline often ticks the box.

    Ignoring the points raised so far in the blog, why is this problematic? It all comes down to how the service is actually delivered. Telephone hotlines use people. The more work the people do, the more they have to charge you. This is not new to anyone but it raises a few dilemmas:

    • Spamming and other activities can impact the costs
    • An unprecedented year can negatively impact your budget
    • The relationship between the number of reports and the cost of the service can introduce a conflict of interest in delivering the ethics programme.

    So what’s the solution? A scalable, flexible digital system in which it costs the same to have 1 report as it does to have 100. Organisations that do not have to worry about the pricing can freely promote their digital reporting platform within or even outside their company (for example among external stakeholders, such as suppliers, customers or the general public). It’s much more cost effective for companies with offices around the world too. Moreover, digital solutions allow the implementation of anti-spamming measures.

    When using a whistleblowing telephone hotline, employees have to fear that their voice, accent, etc. will give away their identity.

    4. Data protection cannot be guaranteed

    The rollout of GDPR impacted whistleblowing procedures and channels. Organisations have been forced to review how they handle and process data from whistleblowing cases – often personal data. Only recently, an organisation was investigated by the Information Commissioner’s Office after accidentally revealing whistleblowers’ details.

    Now, why should telephone hotlines concern organisations? By design, the telephone hotline reporting process has vulnerabilities which compromise the confidentiality and anonymity of individuals. Not only that, sensitive information passes through a third party introducing further risk of the violation of personal data.

    In contrast, digital whistleblowing systems offer a secure, encrypted system and are establishing themselves as best practice around the world offering:

    • Case-specific encryption
    • No third-party access to cases
    • Strict permissions and security measures
    • Integrated anonymisation of personal data

    Digital systems are instilling confidence in employees to speak up and are protecting organisations from data loss, data leakage and data breaches.

    In Summary

    In the past, whistleblowing telephone hotlines have proven to be an effective channel for employees to speak up. It is, however, time to embrace digital systems in our ethics programmes, as we do elsewhere in our organisations. They provide a better experience for employees, save investigators time and meet the cyber challenges of today. A win-win solution for all parties.

    Our digital whistleblowing system EQS Integrity Line helps you to reduce risks in your company.

    Gerald Chifamba
    Gerald Chifamba

    Sales and Business Development Executive – EQS Group | Gerald Chifamba assists international companies with ethics and compliance management systems, particularly whistleblowing and policy management. Prior to joining EQS Group, he worked in FinTech for a challenger stockbroker in growth marketing. He is a board member for one of the largest youth homelessness charities in London.