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Why Hotline Anonymity is in Your Best Interest

Encouraging anonymity for Hotline callers may at first seem like a bad practice; however, it is a sound policy and ultimately, in the best interest of the organization. It is essential to develop a policy for anonymous reporting along with other related hotline policies.  However, although many believe calls should not be accepted without the individual disclosing his or her identity, the following reasons provide strong support for the importance of anonymity:

  1. The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG), Sentencing Commission, Department of Justice (DOJ), and Sarbanes-Oxley Act all promote the notion of anonymous reporting. The OIG in their compliance guidance 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.”  Failing to provide for and encourage anonymity undercuts the perceived effectiveness of the compliance program.
  1. Mandating callers to identify themselves discourages reporting. The fear of becoming a victim of retribution or retaliation remains a significant issue. Due to this concern, individuals may instead give their information to someone else like an attorney, the media, government agencies, or simply not tell anyone.  This may lead to greater liability exposure for the organization.  As a general rule, the more serious the complaint or allegation, the less likely callers will willingly identify themselves.
  1. Another sound reason for not requiring someone to disclose their identity is due to the fact that the organization will bear the burden of protecting a caller’s identity (confidentiality) once it is known. Failure to protect identified callers could result in unprotected reprisals or retaliation and serious consequences for the organization that may draw the attention of attorneys and governmental regulatory agencies. There have been cases where employees have argued that the organization made an insufficient attempt to protect them, resulting in retaliation or retribution. There are a number of cases for reprisals or wrongful discharges where companies have been put in an awkward position requiring them to prove that the Hotline call did not contribute to the adverse action or termination.
  1. It is also useful to keep in mind that many callers want to self-disclose their identity. Some individuals seek a protective state as a “whistleblower” to forestall performance-based or conduct-based action against them and attempt to achieve this by invoking the organization’s non-retribution/non-reprisal policy. For some, calling the Hotline may be an attempt to block adverse personnel action.

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In some cases, it is desirable, and perhaps even necessary, to learn the identity of the caller in order to properly act upon the information offered.  In such cases, the caller should be encouraged to self-disclose their identity, noting that their confidentiality will be protected.  As such, it is important to also have a Confidentiality Policy in addition to an Anonymity Policy.  Both policies are called for in the OIG compliance guidance documents.

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