Tips on Compliance Hotline Anonymity

Richard P. Kusserow | April 2013

Encouraging anonymity with compliance hotline callers may at first may seem a counterproductive practice. Many would advise to the contrary and state that no calls should be accepted without an individual disclosing his or her identity. This has three major drawbacks.

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

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Another problem arising from requiring someone to disclose his or her identity is that the organization will bear the burden of protecting a caller’s identity once it is known. A compliance 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. There have been cases where employees have argued that the organization made an insufficient attempt to protect them, resulting in retaliation or retribution. This argument has 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 still 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.

Finally, it 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.

About the Author

Richard P. Kusserow established Strategic Management Services, LLC, after retiring from being the DHHS Inspector General, and has assisted over 3,000 health care organizations and entities in developing, implementing and assessing compliance programs.