Yesterday I considered an article by Ryan Hubbs, entitled “10 Factors Leading to Reporting Mechanism Distrust”, in which he detailed 10 factors leading to hotline distrust. Today I want to pick up on that article with Hobbs’ tips for building a trusted hotline reporting program and culture, talk about the SEC whistle blowing program, and conclude with a few thoughts on why experienced, invested counsel is so critical in these.

Organizations implement and maintain hotlines, trusted programs, hotline programs differently depending on their sizes, cultures, geography, and many other factors if they must decide if they’ll construct such programs. Many organizations find benefit to taking it outside from the experience and expertise, the appearance of independence which can increase employee trust. A smaller organization may not be able to do so. Nevertheless, there are many competent companies that put on hotline services for small individuals.

What can you do to help build trust for your reporting system?

1. Training and awareness. Increased awareness of the program will help build employee’s confidence around     it, and organization should continually strive to help employees know that the hotline reporting system program works, why the organization believes in it, who operates it, and why it’s a critical part of the culture of the company and the compliance ethos of the company. Organizations should include hotline frequently asked questions and answers for all employee new hires and supervisory training.

  1. Ongoing communication. Communication about a hotline reporting program, recent compliance issues, and messages from management should be a routine and commonplace. I have talked about putting posters in workrooms and coffee rooms to announce hotlines, but you have to continually communicate it. Think of the example of Louis Sapirman at Dun & Bradstreet, where they are continually communicating via the company’s internal social media program about the hotline.
  1. Accessibility. Information on a hotline reporting program and how to report a concern should be within one click of the organization’s intranet or external website. An organization should communicate program information in as many languages is as necessary to provide coverage. Certainly here, the Department of Justice and Securities Exchange Commission have made clear in the 2012 guidance that local languages must be respected and utilized. Web-based reporting platforms should be available to facilitate anonymous reporting and allow for inclusion of attachments. Conversely, you may have a situation where a large amount of your workforce does not have access to a computer. They may be in a country where there’s limited internet or, frankly, they may not be trained on computers, so you be required to maintain other mechanisms as well.
  1. Transparency. Prominently display your organization’s hotline reporting and investigative process including the expertise and contact information of your trained investigators, what employees should expect, plus the organization’s responsibilities, cooperate, and protecting against retaliation. We have talked about anti-retaliation before, but I’m going to emphasize it again because it is so important. You must incorporate the fair process doctrine, you must not retaliate, and you must make clear to your employees that you will not tolerate retaliation.
  1. Proficiency and objectivity. Those who manage the hotline and investigation process should be technically proficient, professional, well trained, and experienced in the handling and reporting of concerns. The organization should also install adequate systems, processes, and technologies to support the investigators and ultimately the employees. This includes an in depth and routine training, I would say no less than annually, for the organization’s investigative, legal, HR, and compliance staff, but you’ve got to get the word out. You got to have proficiency and objectivity. Prong three of the 2016 Department of Justice pilot program required compliance expertise. You must have that proficiency and it should include into your investigative staff.
  1. Ongoing assessment. Is your organization assessing your compliance program and your hotline? How do employees currently view the hotline reporting program and corporate culture? Can people get the information to the appropriate disciplines within your organization? Here you can think about Wells Fargo, where there was clear evidence that the culture had failed yet even with a reporting mechanism in place and use of that mechanism, management did not follow up to determine the issues which led to the company’s catastrophic reputational damage.

Next, is an assessment on whether the ethics and hotline policies, procedures, and technology are meeting the needs of the organization and the employees. Here let me emphasize technologies, because I earlier about a situation where an employee does not have access to a computer. What if the employees are out on a drilling rig? Would they have access to a cell phone, or could they report in that manner? Maybe not. They may have to use a computer. You must have the appropriate technology for your diverse workforce.

What about after the report is made? Are your internal investigations and resulting disciplinary actions consistent with the organization’s desired culture of compliance? Here you need to make sure that the actions you have taken really are consistent because employees understand this and they will watch and see what happens. Are independent reviews conducted by internal audit or external professionals with ongoing oversight by an audit committee of the hotline and results? Finally, are complaints and resolutions disclosed to or discussed with external auditors? Are you bringing in outside experts to help you?

All of this is important because of Dodd-Frank and its creation of a Whistleblower program for securities violations, such as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for issuers. As of April, of 2017, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has made 43 whistle blowers awards of over $153 million to whistle blowers under the Whistleblower program established under Dodd-Frank. This is a direct result of failure of corporate hotlines. Any regulator will tell you that 95% of all employees attempted to report internally first and they were either rebuffed, they were retaliated against, or in some other way rejected. The amount of money, fines and penalties, paid out for ignoring whistle blowers, people who report anonymously, is significant.

Finally, as I end this one-month series, I would just like to re-emphasize the need for experienced investigative counsel for serious matters. Recently had a declination issued in the Linde Gas case by the Department of Justice (DOJ), and it really was clear that the counsel used by Linde in in addition to the decision self-disclose, was a critical factor in Linde getting the superior decision it did, which was a declination to prosecute. The investigation was a very difficult set of facts, very convoluted, very muddled up over many countries with shell companies, direct companies, and others. You really must have experienced investigative counsel for things that are outside the routine. Having an experienced, season and competent FCPA bar-lawyer who could both investigate it and negotiate with the government is very critical going forward.

Three Key Takeaways

  1. Work to engender employee trust.
  2. The SEC Whistleblower program is a huge success and is not going away.
  3. Use experienced investigative counsel for hotlines reports of serious wrongdoing.

Today I want to consider some factors which can lead to employees’ distrust of an internal reporting system. Ryan Hubbs wrote an excellent article entitled “10 Factors Leading to Reporting Mechanism Distrust”.

The guidance and mandates for companies on reporting mechanism reporting are numerous, overlapping and sometimes very broad. There are the US Sentencing Guidelines; regulations under Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX), the Dodd-Frank Act and the 2012 FCPA Guidance. There are international guidelines from the EU, US and London based stock exchanges and even the United Nations deems reporting mechanism reporting a necessary good business practice. Dodd-Frank attempted to strengthen accountability by specifically providing protections for those who come forward as whistle blowers but also allows regulators to respond to misconduct through finding some legal action. While the goal of whistleblowers and reporting mechanisms might be to identify and correct wrongdoing, they do not guarantee success and they do not even guarantee effective and trusting programs.

Trust is a primary factor as to whether an employee will come forward with a concern. Management might try a quick-fix reaction to a messy investigation with more reporting mechanisms, posters or asking a CEO to use compliance training to generally get the word out. Nevertheless, employees view it as a trust issue, and you must have that trust. If an employee chooses not to report and an outside source later discovers misconduct, the organization will certainly be subject to potential financial losses and reputational damage that could have been avoided. If the employee does report, but the culture of trust is lacking or they faced retaliation, up to and including termination, then you have a disgruntled employee who is most likely going to go to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

What are Hubbs’ 10 factors leading to distrust of internal reporting mechanisms? Number one is that employees do not understand the reporting mechanism system. Some the questions include, “who answers the reporting mechanism number? Will they know that I filed a reporting mechanism complaint if I do so anonymously? Will they tell my boss that I’ve reported a concern? Where does my complaint go and who reviews it?” Employee doubt and uncertainty can impede an employee’s decision to report a concern. Transparency is also noted to aid in trust and the more likely an employee is to come forward.

Number two is inadequate reporting mechanism resources and poor reporting program design. Companies can demonstrate their commitment to a reporting mechanism by spending money on well-designed reporting mechanism programs and professionally trained, efficient responders and investigate, fully integrated case management systems and all necessary supported tools. Anything less, will engender employee mistrust.

Number three is the lack of personalization of employee concerns. Utilizing an internal reporting mechanism can be a very personal experience for an employee as the whistleblower might be a victim, the employee could well have witnessed significant wrongdoing. He or she may view using the reporting mechanism as simply taking a personal chance by coming forward and doing the right thing. This means that if an employee only hears a recorded message or an automated response; they may view the entire program as machine-like and indifferent. Having qualified and experienced compliance or investigative professionals who should follow a predesigned investigative protocol, should immediately follow up on reported concerns. Moreover, concerned employees need support and reassurance they have done the right thing and the organization will address their concerns and that they will be protected from retaliation. There should also be a strong written statement against retaliation.

Number four is the improper handling of whistleblower complaints and lack of training of investigators. The mishandling of complaints and poor training of reporting mechanism calls and investigations can cause reporting errors in which the company conducts an inadequate investigation and/or comes to the wrong conclusion. As noted above an investigative protocol coupled with skilled investigators early in the reporting process. Employees who experience mishandled complaints will almost certainly communicate their dissatisfaction with colleagues, and that can certainly destroy reporting mechanism morale.

Number five is the always dicey question of whether management is involved in the reporting mechanism. If local management gets involved early when they may be the problem, or complicit in allowing concerns to go forward or unaddressed. Local HR professionals might also appear to employees to be closely aligned with management, they also might be inadequately trained and show bias or favoritism. To ensure transparency and objectivity, often when it’s effective to use a third-party administrator for your reporting mechanism. At the point when concern becomes part of an investigation, the organization can involve management, including internal audit, compliance, legal and HR, depending on the type of complaint.

Number six is too many reporting mechanisms. Your corporate reporting mechanism should be the primary entry point for all concerns regardless of who reports or how companies identify them. Unfortunately, companies also have avenues such as emails, web portals, writing and of course, in person. These can require companies to struggle to determine who owns the proactive and reactive assessments of reporting and responses. Many companies offer reporting mechanisms just beyond the centralized reporting mechanism, but you should have a professionalized, centralized, clearly articulated program that help streamline reporting, increase communication and awareness, and decrease confusion to help build trust.

Number seven is there is too much emphasis placed on reports which must be based solely on “credible complaints. Employees who file fictitious or malicious complaints against companies and colleagues defend pending terminations or to get others into trouble or retaliate for some perceived personal slight.” While some companies attempt to reduce meritless complaints by communicating that employees should only report credible or good-faith complaints, others might go a step further by saying employees could be subject to disciplinary action for filing complaints that are not found to be credible. However, these tactics may well deter employees from reporting any concerns.

Number eight are the twin obstacles of negative incidences and retaliation. If I have had one key theme throughout this series on reporting, and indeed, throughout this month of investigations, it is an absolute prohibition against retaliation. Companies must prevent retaliation. When an employee is mistreated for following the organization’s reporting policy, the reporting mechanism can sustain severe damage to its credibility and viability as a safe and secure mechanism. The damage from mismanagement and reprisals is memorialized on the internet and court records or public documents can create a devastating silent, do-not-report culture. Companies must communicate they have a zero tolerance for retaliation and deal with any retaliation swiftly and publicly.

Number nine is the problem of inconsistent outcomes. Companies must demonstrate that consistent and fair outcomes are routine, regardless of people, relationships or scenarios. Employees will learn through the grapevine if the organization delivers fair, consistent discipline, regardless of how confidentially an organization hides such outcomes. Of course, if employees view outcomes as fair, they will be more compelled to report concerns. Employees know that inconsistency equals personal risk.

Finally, number 10 is the time worn adage that actions speak louder than words. Employees critique, judge and evaluate what an organization says about its reporting mechanism reporting program by what it does, rather than what it says. Does it follow policies and procedures as assigned? Does it really have a zero-tolerance policy on retaliation? Are outcomes consistent, fair and appropriate? Does it truly allow employees to report concerns anonymously?

Three Key Takeaways

  1. What are today’s three key takeaways? Well, number one, you must not retaliate. That is probably the biggest destroyer of credibility and trust in a reporting mechanism reporting.
  2. There must be ongoing communications and there must be follow up with the employees who made the anonymous reports.
  3. Celebrate your reporting mechanism. Let employees know that it is acceptable to raise your hand because that is all you are doing at the end of the day, raising your hand. It is incredibly important and it is something that will make your reporting mechanism work much better.

 

 

 

In an article entitled “How to Launch and Operate a Legally-Compliant International Workplace Report Channel” or in compliance parlance, a hotline, author Donald Dowling of the law firm of White and Case, provided a useful guide to help navigate the challenges of setting up a multi-national whistleblower’s hotline, such as is required under the FCPA and UK Bribery Act. His article “analyzes the six categories of laws that can restrict whistleblower hotlines abroad, focusing on compliance.” The six categories are:

  1. Laws Mandating Whistleblower Procedures

This group of laws “comprises mandates that require setting up whistleblower hotlines in the first place.” This includes the US Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) as well as other jurisdiction laws which generally protect whistleblowers from retaliation but do specifically require any hotlines be set up on a company wide basis. Dowling also found a couple of countries, Norway and Liberia, which require general receiving and processing of “public interest disclosures.”

  1. Laws Promoting Denunciations to Government Authorities

This category of laws generally related to legal requirements for the reporting of illegal acts to government authorities in two ways. First, these laws encourage whistleblowing to government which then compete with employer hotlines by enticing internal whistleblowers to divert denunciations from company compliance experts and over to outside law enforcers who indict white collar criminals. This first approach is found in Dodd-Frank, which offers bounties. Second, these “laws that require (as opposed merely to encourage) government denunciations rarely except corporate hotline sponsors. These laws therefore force hotline sponsors to divulge hotline allegations over to law enforcement.” This second approach is found in SOX which “requires an employer to offer internal hotline procedures”.

  1. Laws Restricting Hotlines Specifically

This category is exemplified by European data protection laws which act to restrict companies’ freedom to launch and operate reporting programs. Dowling believes that these laws are based upon the fact that Europeans “see hotlines as threatening privacy rights of denounced targets and witness”. Also this would seem to be in response to the totalitarian past from the World War II era. The author identifies what he termed “the four biggest hurdles” set up to frustrate hotlines in EU jurisdiction. They are “(1) restrictions against hotlines accepting anonymous denunciations; (2) limits on the universe of proportionate infractions on which a hotline accepts denunciations; (3) limits on who can use a hotline and be denounced by hotline; and (4) hotline registration requirements.

  1. Laws Prohibiting Whistleblower Retaliation

This category will be familiar to US compliance practitioners through the applications of US laws such as SOX, Dodd-Frank and numerous state whistleblower statutes. Additionally, the author lists numerous foreign jurisdictions which have such laws. But here he believes that the key is communication because in many countries and foreign jurisdictions, there is no tradition of protection of persons who make reports against superiors so that an “employer needs to overcome worker fear of reprisal for whistleblowing.”

  1. Laws Regulating Internal Investigations

Typically laws on internal investigation do not impact hotlines because a hotline is a “pre-investigation tool.” However, the author believes that No. 4 above, communication by the employer is critical to complying with laws that enact procedural safeguards for persons under investigation. Heavy-handed communications about a hotline could blow back against employers in claims by employees that “an employer rigged the investigation process.” So companies should ensure that communications about hotlines do not convey an “overzealous approach to complaint processing and investigations.”

  1. Laws Silent on, but Possibly Triggered By, Whistleblower Hotlines

Here the author recognizes that the title of this category “is necessarily vague and determining which laws fall into it is difficult.” Nevertheless, he writes that the most “likely candidates are data protection laws silent on hotlines and labor laws imposing negotiation duties and work rules.” Regarding the former, the author argues that hotlines are not databases but conduits for the transmittal of information. He acknowledges that EU data privacy laws reject this distinction and treat hotlines as if they were databases where information is stored. He does not identify other jurisdictions which yet take this aggressive approach but he believes this may become a trend. The labor law issue is also tricky and may turn on the interpretation of whether the institution of a hotline is viewed as substantive change in working conditions under a union-management labor agreement and therefore subject to collective bargaining.

There are several key inquiries you should make for your hotline. What jurisdiction are you in and what is the binding law or laws which will govern you going forward. Must you confine your hotline reporting to specific topics or is it open to all issues? Can anonymous allegations be brought forward in the jurisdiction in question. Do you have a hotline staffed in-house or do you use an external third party vendor? Finally, must you disclose hotline data to government regulators?

Three Key Takeaways

  1. You must understand the jurisdiction you are in and the laws which govern your hotline.
  2. Can you use information which is reported anonymously?
  3. Must you disclose any data to government regulators?

 

Is your hotline working for you? In an article entitled, entitled “Promoting Effective Us of the Compliance Hotline” José Tabuena provided an excellent example of the power of a hotline. He provide a case study of a company which had not integrated its IT function into its regular compliance and ethics training programs. As such there were zero calls into the hotline by employees from the IT department. This dynamic was changed and IT was integrated into the company’s regular compliance and ethics training. Thereafter, the hotline received several calls from IT department employees indicating where there were two major areas of complaints. The first general area was that there were conflicts of interests between IT department managers, family members who were hired and perceptions of favoritism. The second generally revolved around allegations that certain company managers were manipulating data to maximize their bonuses.

The Favoritism Problem

The Human Resources (HR) department led an investigation that included questioning all IT managers about their direct reports and employees of their unit. The company determined that there was only one instance of a manger hiring a family member (a brother-in-law), but that person did not report to the manager and was in a different section of the IT organization. This finding made clear that there were misperceptions in the IT department, which affected the department morale. To remedy this all IT managers received training on appropriate employment practices, communications were also delivered to all IT employees explaining policies and practices regarding the hiring of family members. Most satisfyingly, during follow-up with callers to the helpline, the callers stated that the work environment in the IT department had noticeably improved. They also expressed gratitude that their questions were answered and that their issues were addressed. The callers felt their concerns were taken seriously when they saw the communications on hiring practices and upon having discussions with managers during staff meetings. Staff retention started improving in the department.

Manipulation of Data for Bonuses

The company used the hotline to obtain more information from the callers on “isolating the metrics and the managers in question. It was determined that the bonuses of a select few IT managers were indeed influenced by a questionable data source, which was controlled by a non-manager with minimal oversight and controls. Following interviews with key individuals and review of the data file (including forensic analysis), it was determined that one IT manager had misrepresented information provided to the staff person maintaining the data. Notably, this staff person also reported to this manager. As a result, the IT manager’s bonus compensation was inflated. He was subsequently terminated.

Basic Tenets of an Effective Hotline

This case study provided three key tenets of an effective internal reporting system.

  • First, a helpline is of no value if the workforce is not aware of it. Although a helpline was in place, it became apparent that a segment of the company had not been informed. It was hotline data that revealed this gap. By reviewing data segmented by region, department, incident classification, and other criteria, it became obvious in comparison to the rest of the organization that the IT department had not used the helpline.
  • Second, the ethics and compliance office obtained support from the Chief Information Officer (CIO) for making IT part of the helpline community and for designating a liaison within the IT function. The support of department leadership likely influenced the success of the training and communications delivered by the ethics and compliance staff.
  • Third, the awareness of the helpline is not sufficient to ensure success. The company made sure that issues and allegations were addressed and investigated. Employees who choose not to report wrongdoing indicate a belief that nothing will be done anyway, so why take the risk? Employees also cite fear of retaliation as a reason for not reporting.

This case study demonstrates the power of a hotline. The company’s Compliance Department “established the credibility of the helpline as a resource to raise issues and report misconduct. The concerns regarding nepotism and conflicts of interest were taken seriously, and although the   violations were not as widespread as the calls indicated, the review went a long way to clear the air.” Equally important, the helpline proved to be a successful management tool as well. The company was able to manage potential compliance issues and improve employee morale.

Three Key Takeaways

  1. Hotlines can be powerful tools for the compliance professional.
  2. Simply because you have no hotline complaints does not mean you do not have any compliance or ethics issues which need review and resolution.
  3. Adequate follow up is a key part of overall hotline effectiveness.

Today I consider some best practices regarding a compliance hotline.

  1.  The hotline should be developed and maintained externally. It seems axiomatic that em­ployees tend to trust hotlines maintained by third parties more than they do internally maintained systems. Through the submitting of reports via an external hotline there is a perceived extra layer of anonymity and impartiality compared to a sys­tem developed in-house. A third party provider is also more likely to bring specialist expertise that’s difficult to match within the organization.
  2. The hotline supports the collection of detailed infor­mation. As with most everything else, information is power. If a CCO can gather and re­cord information throughout a complaint life cycle, the company will have greater insight into the situation and a company can protect itself more effectively from accusations of negligence or wrongdoing. A hotline reporting system should provide consolidated, real-time access to data across all departments and locations, plus analytic capabilities that allow you to un­cover trends and hot spots. All reported materials should be consolidated in one comprehensive, chronologi­cally organized file, so a CCO can monitor ongoing progress and make better, more informed decisions.
  3. The hotline must meet your company’s data retention poli­cies. Retaining data in a manner consistent with your internal data retention policies is important. A hotline should offer a secure, accessible report retention database, or you may be faced with making your own complicated and costly arrangements for transmitting and storing older reports to a permanent storage location.
  4. The hotline should be designed to inspire employee confidence. Retaliation or perceived unfairness to those making hotline complaints will destroy the effectiveness of the internal reporting process and poison the corporate culture. A hot­line must be seen to offer the highest levels of protection and anonymity. To encourage employee participation, the hotline should allow them to bring their concerns directly to some­one outside their immediate chain of command or workplace environment – especially when the complaint concerns an immediate superior. The hotline should also enable employees to submit a re­port from the privacy of an off-site computer or telephone. It may seem like a small convenience, but giving employees the freedom to enter a complaint from a location that is safe can make a huge difference to participation rates.
  5. The hotline offers on-demand support from subject matter experts. Opening lines of communication can bring new issues to your compliance group. It is therefore important that once those reports are entered into the system, a person or function has the responsibility to follow up in a timely manner. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to sit on a hotline complaint and let the employee reporting it fester. Additionally, with the short time frames set out in the Dodd-Frank Whistleblower timelines for resolution before an employee can go the SEC to seek a bounty, the clock is literally clicking.
  6. The hotline provides inbuilt litigation support and avoidance tools. A company must make certain that its hotline is preconfigured to meet the legal requirements for document retention, at­torney work product protection procedures, and attorney-client privilege. Developing these tools in-house can add signifi­cantly to your costs, and maintaining a hotline without one exposes your organization to unacceptable risk.
  7. The hotline supports direct communication. A hotline should open the lines of communication and give you a di­rect sight-line into the heart of your company. Look for a system that enables you to connect directly, privately, and anonymously with the person filing a complaint. Direct communication also signals to employees that their complaints are being heard at the highest levels.

Like other risk management issues, hotlines must also be managed effectively after implementation and roll-out. Here are some practical tips which will help you make your hotline an effective and useful tool.

Get the word out. If employees do not know about the hotline, they will not use it. Allocate a portion of your time and budget to promoting the corporate hotline through multiple channels. Put up posters and distribute cards that employees can keep in their wallets or desk drawers. Deliver in-person presentations where possible. And do not think of the promotional initiative as a one-time effort. It is important to remind employees regularly, through in-person communications, via e-mail, or through intranets, newsletters, and so on, that this resource is available to them. Some hotlines offer promotional materials to help make the job easier; make sure you ask what type of promotional support may be available.

Train all your employees. Getting employees to use the system is one half of the challenge; ensuring they use it properly is the other half. This is where training becomes essential. Make sure people understand what types of activities or observations are appropriate for reporting and which are not. HR and compliance staff will need training too, to help them understand how the hotline impacts their day-to-day activities. Company leaders also need to understand the role the hotline plays in the organizational culture, and the importance of their visible support for this compliance initiative.

Take a look at the data. Use the data derived from or through the hotline to identify unexpected trends or issues. Examples might be what percentage of employees use the hotline and what issues are they submitting? A healthy hotline reporting system will yield reports from .5 to 2 percent of your employee base. If your reporting patterns are higher or lower, it may indicate mistrust of the hotline, misuse, or a widespread compliance issue. Isolate the data by location and department to identify micro-trends that could indicate problems within a subset of your corporate culture. Analyzing the data can help you stay a step ahead of emerging issues.

Response is critical to fairness in the system. Seeing a hotline system in action in this way can go a long way toward dispelling employee fears of being ostracized or experiencing retaliation because if they see that their concerns are heard clearly and addressed fairly, they will learn to view the hotline as a valuable conduit. If your compliance group responds promptly and appropriately to hotline complaints, you can ensure robust participation and ongoing success. Even when a complaint proves to be unfounded, it can still provide an opportunity to open a dialogue with employees and clear up any misunderstandings. Responding to reported issues also gives compliance officers a chance to prove that issues can be resolved or addressed while protecting the privacy and anonymity of the whistleblower.

Three Key Takeaways

  1. Get the word out to your employees about your company hotline through a variety of mediums and platforms.
  2. Train your employees on the use of the hotline.
  3. Use data from your hotline to continually update and improve your compliance program.