Employee reporting lines have been around for several decades. They go by many different names like Business Abuse Line, Employee Tip line, Careline and many others. It seems like this communication vehicle is a must have for anyone operating a business. One would think with the number of issues that arise in a workplace on a weekly basis that the phone would be ringing off the hook. Instead much of the information companies receive from their employees come through the regular lines of the chain of command. That’s not a bad thing since our goal is to have an environment where our employees feel comfortable in communicating their concerns and observations. The disappointment however is when we investigate an issue only to find that a number of employees had been aware of it long before “we” were and that the issue was never reported.
The National Retail Security Survey conducted by the University of Florida notes that 97% of survey participant companies employ an Anonymous Hotline. 92% conduct some form of new hire orientation and 90% use a communication bulletin board. Still with all those awareness devices companies often don’t receive a great deal of calls related to internal theft. With all these avenues to promote the use of the line, we just don’t get significant results compared to the actual number of cases resolved by other detection methods each year. Should we just abandon the cost of these services? The answer is of course, “no.” Even one call that leads to the recognition and resolution of an issue makes these hotlines worthwhile. So the real questions are “why don’t they work as well as they should?” and “how can we improve employee usage”?
The issue with tiplines isn’t in their form or function. The issue is that like everything else in life, if we want it to “work” then we need to invest a little time and effort into promotion. Turning on the line and hanging a poster isn’t enough to get results. Success requires that we overcome the four main reasons why business abuse tip lines don’t work.
1. Overcoming Mom and Dad - People are not comfortable reporting on other employees. I’ve overheard these tiplines referred to by employees as “snitch” lines, 1-800 Rat Lines, and other less pleasing terms. Even the most loyal employee often feels that “it’s none of their business.” Those feelings are a part of our socialization. Children are taught by parents and teachers not to be a “tattle tale” and to “mind their own business.” This training is done of course with the best intentions. The problem however is that such training becomes a part of our decision making process. As adults we can consciously see the difference between being a tattle tale and sharing important information. Subconsciously, we all have that little voice that judges such actions as “negative.” If you doubt that, just imagine if you made a mistake and one of your co-workers went to your boss and told him or her. Yes, at a rational level a mistake is different than theft, but at an emotional level - telling on someone is telling on someone.
2. Fear and Loathing: Even if an employee understands that their communication is important, even if they agree that they should report suspicions we still may not overcome their fear. Fear that they are wrong about what they saw. Fear that they might get an innocent person in “trouble.” Fear that their supervisor may “hate” them for making the call. Our good and trustworthy employees don’t want to create unnecessary drama and they don’t want to be guilty of being mistaken. The more vague the process of investigation for such calls, the greater the “unknown” for the employee and the more likely they are to be overly cautious when deciding whether or not to call.
3. Is it safe: I have heard companies refer to a voice mail box as their “hotline.” I am certain they get a few messages each year and I am also certain that these messages appear in only the most extreme and obvious theft cases or when the report contains only mundane issues. If an employee can get over their childhood socialization and if they can get over their fear of false accusation, they still want to be certain the information is confidential. They don’t want their call recorded so people can figure out “who called” and they want to know beyond any doubt they will not be involved. This means we can’t just tell them that calls are confidential we have to prove to them, in advance, that calls are confidential.
4. Bad Promotion: All things considered, bad promotion probably kills more tip line programs than any of the other three concerns. A fancy poster and wallet cards are a good first step, but without buy-in from the employee’s supervisor the program falls flat. Employees are experts in reading between the lines. If a supervisor never mentions the tip line or does so with an eye roll, the employees will accept that it’s not that important or worse, that the manager thinks it’s a “rat-line.” Promotion means a conversation that shows the supervisor’s full support and commitment to the program. If leadership doesn’t see it as important no one else will either.
These are the four major reasons why Tip Lines don’t work. They are a challenge to a successful program, but they are far from insurmountable obstacles. A company should employ a tip line and should definitely invest a few dollars into a professionally managed third-party service like Ethics Point or The Network. Tip Lines are a low cost and easy communication solution, but their success requires a little strategy and effort.