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1-800 you have a problem

Hotlines can provide employers a window into the seedy underbelly of the organization
Wendy Walsh (R) speaks with reporters alongside her attorney, Lisa Bloom.
Wendy Walsh (R) speaks with reporters alongside her attorney, Lisa Bloom. REUTERS/Kevork Djansezian

By Todd Humber

If you’re sitting back and waiting for phone to ring to tell you if there are issues of sexual harassment, bullying, theft or any other category of wrongdoing, you’re doing it wrong. Very wrong.

Employees aren’t likely to pick up the phone for one simple reason: Trust. They have no idea who’s at the other end of the line. Who’s listening in? Where will the information go? Is it designed to help the complainant or to limit the damage for the organization and suppress the complaint?

A worker who has been sexually harassed might, and that’s a big might, approach human resources if she knows and trusts one of the HR professionals. But they’re highly unlikely to dial an 800 number or fire off a missive to an anonymous inbox, especially when the accused is someone in a senior role that could make their lives even more miserable.

Just look at what happened recently at Fox News with the sexual harassment scandal involving Bill O’Reilly, the network’s number one star.

Fox News trotted out the fact that “No current or former Fox News employee ever took advantage of the 21st Century Fox hotline to raise a concern about Bill O’Reilly, even anonymously.”

They put out this statement even in light of the fact that the network reportedly paid out $13 million US in to five woman as settlements for sexual harassment claims. One accusation should be enough to raise alarm bells – five actual paid settlements totaling millions of dollars? That’s more fire than smoke.

It speaks volumes to the value of these hotlines that the one at Fox News never rang in spite of these settlements. But fear of retribution is only one reason your hotline may be gathering dust. Another may be the fact it simply isn’t being promoted properly.

Alisyn Camerota, a CNN anchor who worked at Fox for 15 years, recently said employees had pretty much zero awareness a hotline even existed.

“There was no hotline,” she said on New Day, one of CNN’s programs. “I can’t underscore this enough. When you have a real hotline, you put up posters. ‘If you see anything, feel anything, here’s the number to call.’ That did not exist.”

A hotline should also be open to more than just employees. Jobseekers should be made aware of it. Customers should be made aware of it. It should be posted on websites alongside customer service information.

Why? Because, frankly, the general public is more likely to blow the whistle than an employee who may have her livelihood compromised by coming forward and sticking her neck out.

When Fox’s hotline finally got a phone call about Bill O’Reilly, it wasn’t coming from inside the house. Rather, it came from Wendy Walsh — a woman who claimed O’Reilly “pulled a job opportunity from her in 2013 after she declined to visit his hotel room,” according to a Washington Post article.

The benefits of a properly run and promoted whistleblower line go beyond sexual harassment. In 2015, the Toronto Transit Commission’s integrity hotline got a call about an employee benefits fraud scheme.

It kicked off a massive investigation that resulted in more than five per cent of employees at the TTC — about 600 people — being put under the microscope. The auditor general found false health benefit claims had been filed in a scheme that cost more than $5 million.

It’s a complicated story, but the Readers’ Digest version is this: An orthotics store was providing fraudulent receipts for services not provided or inflating costs. The store and the employees then allegedly shared the payout, according to police.

Earlier this year, the TTC announced 73 employees had been fired to date as a result of the scheme and that “more dismissals are expected.”

It’s not clear who made the call to the hotline, and that’s a good thing. Most likely it was an employee, as this integrity line is set up and promoted to TTC employees and contractors. But it could have been a disgruntled worker at the orthotics store or it may have been a member of the general public. Let’s hope we never know.

But make pains to let everyone know the hotline is truly there to serve them, not you. Promote it. Build a culture that says it’s OK to use it. And make sure there are never any retributions for an anyone who picks up the phone.

The focus of any complaint made to a hotline has to remain on the complaint itself, and not the accuser. Will you get vexatious complaints? Undoubtedly. A disgruntled candidate who didn’t get the job might be inclined to seek revenge against the hiring manager with a made-up story.

But it’s better to get that call, investigate it and dismiss it than to bury your head in the sand and pretend everything is OK. Employers have a responsibility to provide safe working conditions. A hotline is one more tool to ensure it does – properly run, it can serve as both a deterrent to bad behavior and a barometer for what’s happening in the seedy underbelly of any organization.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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