(For related information about operating a Help or Hotline, see Hotline Operations)

In mandatory programs, the government expects “a process, such as a hotline, to receive complaints, and the adoption of procedures to protect the anonymity of complainants and to protect whistleblowers from retaliation” (DHHS OIG, Compliance Hotline.jpgGuidance). The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners has found that hotlines result in discovery of nearly three times more fraud than the next most effective means of discovery (management reviews and internal audits). But what if you have a hotline and no one calls?

Communicating effectively about your hotline involves answering upfront a series of questions:

One Hotline or more than one? Many organizations have one hotline and then “triage” what comes in to appropriate areas for follow-up. Others, like this medical center, advertise multiple hotlines, attempting to divert calls based on subject matter. Similarly, this county wanted to segregate calls about suspected child and elder abuse from those about “fraud, waste and abuse”.

Phone / Website / Email ? Even in 2012 many organizations have not yet moved to supplementing their 1-800-numbers with web portals. But those that have implemented websites often get at least as many reports through that route than the phone based “hotline”. For example, by 2009 Coca-Cola had more reports coming in through the web than via its phone line. However trained operators may elicit more information than a "caller" will type into a web report.

Who's the audience? Employees only? Whose employees? Adidas, for example, hires NGOs in China to run hotlines aimed at employees of its suppliers . Will calls from customers or the general public be welcome as at this hospital system or this bank? If customers aren’t to use the Hotline, where else should they be directed? This group purchasing organization encourages its suppliers to use its hotline as a formal grievance mechanism.

When should people call / use it? This may be the hardest communication challenge. Communication about the hotline is aimed at (1) creating awareness of this route for raising issues within the organization and (2) getting people to use it. The latter task requires overcoming user skepticism and fear of retaliation. Messaging ambivalence or hostility about use of the hotline in related communications, however, makes overcoming those sources of resistance less likely. For example, compare:

  • "The Hotline is to be used when other resolution channels have been ineffective or the caller wishes to remain anonymous" with

  • “Report fraud, theft, or other unethical conduct to the [Hotline]” and

  • “Be part of the solution. If you have questions, talk to someone. If you see conduct that violates our Code, report it!”

Each sends a very different “message” about the hotline. And getting this part of the "message" aligned with other aspects of the ethics and compliance effort is essential to receiving the calls the organization wants. For example, count how many times this Home Health Agency mentions its "Compliance Helpline" and for what types of matters, while describing its program.

What To Call It? Looking at the practices of others, the answer seems to be “just about anything”. Regulators seem to favor “Hotline” with its sense of urgency. Some multinationals have found translation of that term challenging. “Helpline” emphasizes that not every call needs to be about misconduct – but most will be, at least from the caller’s perspective. Here’s a collection of names and the organizations that chose them.

Government Operated Hotline Mechanisms

How to advertise / promote awareness?

A large scale, cross industry study of hotline calls reported in 2007 found posters as the most frequently mentioned awareness source by far. Posters are frequently used and , in some cases, even required by various agencies. But in your environment maybe the most effective way to advertise the hotline is via your Inter and Intranet sites or by training managers on how to have conversations about it with those who report to them.

Georgia Health Sciences University has shared the roll-out and marketing plan for its Hotline.

Certainly to encourage callers effective communication has to be ongoing after the initial roll-out. One frequently suggested strategy is sharing "stories" of calls and how they got addressed, as this Intel supplier does. Another is including information about the hotline in new employee orientation and other trainings.

See also: Operating a Hotline