How Important is Anonymity With Hotline Calls?

Richard P. Kusserow | July 2014

Organizations must encourage employees to report anonymously to the compliance hotline. At first this may seem like a counter intuitive practice.  And many do believe the contrary and believe no calls should be accepted without an individual disclosing his or her identity. However, there are several major drawbacks to this approach. In this article I have focused on why anonymous calls should be encouraged and viewing anonymity as a good thing.

First, federal regulatory compliance guidance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG), the U.S. Sentencing Commission, U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act all promote the notion of permitting anonymous reporting through hotlines. The OIG in their compliance guidance specifically state “[a]t a minimum, comprehensive compliance programs should include…a hotline, to receive complaints, and the adoption of procedures to protect the anonymity of complainants and to protect whistleblowers from retaliation.” As such, failing to provide for and encourage anonymity undercuts the perceived effectiveness of the compliance program that should be reinforced with a policy on the subject.

Second, requiring callers to give their identities may discourage people from calling the hotline. It may unnecessarily cause callers to fear that the knowledge of their identity will lead to retribution or retaliation. This in turn may result in the caller refraining to reveal information that could cause a serious liability to the organization or, conversely, referring the matter to someone else, calling the media or taking legal action. In general, the more serious the complaint or allegation, the less likely callers will be willing to identify themselves.

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Third, if the organization requires callers to provide their identity then the burden is on the organization to protect their identity. A hotline call in which the caller discloses his or her identity may provoke litigation or, in some cases, a wrongful discharge lawsuit. For example, if an employee, who has disclosed his or her identity in a hotline call, is later fired for unrelated reasons, the employee may make allegations of wrongful discharge arising from the fact that the employee made a report to the hotline. In addition, cases have been raised where employees argued that the organization made an insufficient attempt to protect them, which resulted in retaliation or retribution. This argument has even been made even in cases in which the caller’s identity was known only to hotline staff and not to management. The employee’s counsel argued that the employee’s supervisor could have figured out who made the call; therefore, the company had a broader, affirmative duty to protect the employee. The company may be in the awkward position of having to prove that the call did not contribute to the firing.

Lastly, keep in mind that is usually unnecessary and undesirable to have a caller voluntarily disclose his or her identity. Callers may try to wrap themselves in the cloak of a “whistleblower” to cover up their own misconduct. They may intentionally disclose their identities as callers to the hotline or to members of their work groups in order to achieve a protective state. They may do this to forestall performance-based or conduct-based actions by trying to invoke the organization’s non-retribution/non-reprisal policy. They know that organizations are bound to protect callers from retaliation. By calling the hotline, they hope to block the adverse personnel action. This problem has vexed many organizations.

It is good policy to encourage hotline callers to maintain their anonymity, unless having the identity is essential to act upon a serious allegation. In some cases, it is desirable, and perhaps even necessary, to learn the identity of the caller in order to properly act on the information offered. This means also that there should be a policy for anonymous reporting, developed along with other related hotline policies.

About the Author

Richard P. Kusserow established Strategic Management Services, LLC, after retiring from being the DHHS Inspector General, and has assisted over 2,000 health care organizations and entities in developing, implementing and assessing compliance programs.