While sexual harassment has gotten most of the headlines lately in the time of the #metoo movement, misconduct in the workplace comes in many shapes and sizes. Anonymous reporting, because it removes employees’ fears of retaliation, can be valuable in helping management better understand its own workplace culture above and beyond the single issues of harassment. 

Anonymous reporting mechanisms can unearth all kinds of workplace issues that management may not be aware of—issues that could pose a serious risk to the health of the company. Companies need to benchmark where they stand today and continue to measure changes so they can get to where they want to be tomorrow. Anonymous reporting is a necessary component of a holistic workplace reporting system and can work hand-in-hand with climate surveys to give management a fuller picture of the health of the workplace and help not just with harassment prevention but a whole host of workplace issues. 

Beyond Harassment 

The types of allegations that could be reported anonymously include illegal harassment on the basis of gender, sexual orientation, race, disability, age, ethnicity or nationality, color, and religion. Other issues include reporting drug use at work, employee mistreatment and unsafe workplace conditions, as well as sexual assault reporting and other types of violence. This is in addition to a host of financial misdeeds that could be reported such as fraud, accounting irregularities, embezzlement, bribery, and theft. 

Many times, harassment and other misconduct in the workplace start off as smaller infractions before snowballing.  Anonymous reporting can be valuable in red-flagging a simmering situation before it escalates into a full-fledged one, acting as an early warning system to help with harassment prevention. Last, having a formal reporting procedure to connect the dots between disparate complaints can help leaders establish a pattern that may otherwise get missed. 

If You Build It, They Will Come

Anonymous reporting mechanisms such as ethics hotlines or employee hotlines have been required at many companies since the passage of the 2002 federal law designed to combat financial fraud. One section of the act requires publicly traded companies to set up a mechanism for employees to anonymously report suspected fraud. To comply with these laws, companies began employing anonymous reporting systems, often referred to as ‘whistleblower’ or ‘ethics’ hotlines. Yet research has shown that the bulk of concerns reported to these anonymous employee hotlines are not related to finances at all, but are to raise issues normally designated to the human resource realm, such as harassment and discrimination. 

The Ethics Resource Center reports in its National Business Ethics Survey Of Fortune 500 Employees that the top types of misconduct observed and reported include: conducting personal business on company time; abusive behavior; lying to employees; health/safety violations; discrimination; Internet abuse; company resource abuse; and sexual harassment. These rank way above financial categories of bribes and kickbacks from suppliers and vendors; misreporting financial records; bribes to clients; and misuse of competitors' inside information.

Decades of experience have shown that anonymous reporting systems set up for one issue will be hijacked by employees to report other types of issues. History has shown it’s going to happen whether management wants it to or not, and it proves the need for an anonymous channel through which employees can speak up. Any outlet that encourages employees to come forward is critical since employers can’t correct issues they aren’t aware of. And while this creates the need to set up some back-end processes defining which internal unit is responsible for reviewing which types of reports, it is well worth the effort. 

And, while there is no shortage of internal debate around whether this mission creep should be welcomed or prevented, this is mainly due to the siloed structure of organizations. The experts agree it’s actually a positive thing. 

Multiple Uses for Anonymous Reporting Systems

Companies should expand the reasons for which an employee may make an anonymous report beyond just one type of misdeed, according to the Harvard Law School Forum on Corporate Governance and Financial Regulation.  The rationale? If an anonymous reporting system is comprehensive, encouraging employees to speak up about numerous issues from less serious to very serious, it can reduce the overall fear and stigma associated with anonymous reporting. Used in such a way, it can “reduce the barriers an employee feels before reporting his or her first tip and, after such tip, the employee may be more readily inclined to report future suspected wrongdoing.”  

The Association of Certified Fraud Examiners agrees. “Employees, suppliers and other stakeholders are likely to use a hotline number to report any issue that makes them uncomfortable. Ideally, one hotline should handle all complaints,” it writes in Best Practices in Ethics Hotline report. 

An employee who is trying to report sexual harassment through an anonymous reporting system designed to capture financial fraud should never be turned away because the complaint is not the correct channel for that type of complaint. Doing so “may alienate the employee, who has made the difficult decision to take action,” according to the report, which goes on to say that a general anonymous reporting system allows the company to learn about any high-liability issues as early as possible. When that happens, damage control can begin and potential legal action may be averted. In addition, having multiple reporting systems for various types of misdoings is confusing for employees and fractures information into different entities that may or may not talk to one another.

All-Inclusive Anonymous Reporting Systems 

Along with online anti-harassment training and benchmarking surveys, an anonymous reporting system that welcomes all types of complaints is a necessary part of any holistic harassment prevention program. Companies must go beyond compliance hotlines created only to capture financial fraud. The more wide open a company defines the usage for its anonymous reporting system, the more employees will feel comfortable coming forward to use it. An all-inclusive anonymous reporting system that goes beyond capturing just harassment or just fraud provides more robust data to leadership about the workplace environment, allowing it to take preventative measures and to intervene when necessary in order to create a harassment-free environment.