Canadian Security Magazine

Why security and anonymity matter when setting up ethics reporting tools

By Shannon Walker   

Features ethics whistleblower

Image: BernardaSv / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Despite the changing landscape of cybersecurity and increasing technological advances, human beings remain some of the best detectors of security threats and noncompliance issues in the workplace.

However, as it stands, ethics reporting can be challenging as employees feel their identity is attached to the sensitive information they are reporting. Even with an “open door policy,” it can be challenging for people to come forward with issues in all organizational levels. Sometimes managers even resist escalating information for fear of retaliation or being blamed as the messenger, which contributes to a toxic workplace culture and deepens existing noncompliance issues.

While secrecy in the workplace can be damaging, anonymity can be used to the organization’s advantage. By implementing tools for anonymous ethics reporting, employees and stakeholders move to an even playing field for being held accountable for their actions and any noncompliance matters they may observe. This mutual accountability helps to bring forward security threats faster, more securely, and with shared trust that there will not be retaliation against the whistleblower.

While secrecy in the workplace can be damaging, anonymity can be used to the organization’s advantage.


Understanding ethics reporting tools

A reporting tool is crucial for managing both external and internal security issues as they arise. All companies, big and small, have many moving parts where these issues can easily come about under management’s nose. Risks in the workplace can come in many forms and vary across industries. Risks include issues such as theft, discrimination, misrepresentation of data, or even data breaches. Fraud is an issue that often goes unnoticed for long periods of time, which greatly increases the stakes for negative consequences for the company once discovered. Internally, workplace harassment can quickly lead to a toxic work culture if bullying and inappropriate behaviour are unchecked.

There are different options for ethics reporting tools in the workplace. As stated above, increasing open-door policies between different managerial levels fails to encourage the kind of speak-up culture necessary for full compliance. Anonymity can help bridge this gap; therefore, the mode for reporting should keep this at its core. Two options for implementing anonymous reporting in the workplace include a helpline or a web intake form.

Anonymous ethics helpline

An anonymous ethics helpline facilitates a four-step process for employees to report their concerns securely. The person reporting will first call the hotline, which can be done from anywhere at any time. Next, they will report to a trained agent who will walk the employee through a questionnaire and take note of the circumstances of the case. Once all details have been confirmed for both parties, the report will be submitted for review by the company’s designated administrative team. Implementing a hotline can be customized for your organization’s unique needs, such as different language preferences and third-party audits. A vital part of an effective ethics helpline is keeping the user interface easily accessible and as straightforward of a process as possible. Once the information is collected and encrypted, the assigned administrator will be able to notify the appropriate stakeholders of the issue, and work can be done proactively to mitigate the issue.

Web intake form

Not all employees are comfortable verbally discussing their concerns, even when anonymity is on their side. For that reason, it is increasingly vital for organizations to implement multiple avenues for ethics reporting. Web intake forms help keep communication lines open for those who prefer to enter the information themselves into a portal, instead of physically phoning a hotline. This mode maintains the same standards for anonymity, security and accessibility as an ethics hotline. The tool is enabled online and available on computers and mobile devices for easy configuration. A questionnaire, designed in collaboration with local law enforcement, with options to include file attachments, captures all the information needed to create an effective report. The user can choose whether to remain anonymous and submit through the encrypted third-party portal. Each employee is provided with an ID and password to access the status of their report and follow up if needed.

A common misconception of anonymous reporting is that it will be abused in a frivolous or “tattle tale” nature.

Corresponding policy

When implementing an anonymous reporting tool, it is important to outline a policy unique to your organization. The policy should clearly define how the company will maintain anti-retaliation standards and support those who come forward transparently and anonymously. The policy should also outline how to use the hotline properly, including what situations and concerns can and should be brought forward. These guidelines will help to ensure all employees and key stakeholders are informed of how and when the tool should be used, so they are comfortable doing so. A common misconception of anonymous reporting is that it will be abused in a frivolous or “tattle tale” nature. However, a detailed policy that provides reporting guidelines will help to avoid this. The more detailed the policy, the smoother the implementation process will be.

Who should use anonymous reporting tools?

In the digital age, any business that manages multiple employees and deliverables should seek practices to minimize the risk of fraud and misconduct. An ethics hotline or web intake form allows employees to report any suspicions of unethical behaviour, misconduct, or data breaches within the organization. These can be implemented internally or through a third-party provider to inform management and key stakeholders of vital details more readily. From there, companies can effectively infiltrate possible crises before they happen. Additionally, with the information provided, managers can create more intuitive policies and procedures that support the workplace’s unique problems. Lastly, an anonymous ethics hotline helps to instill and maintain an inclusive speak-up culture among employees, which is crucial for fostering a transparent work environment.

One of the best ways to help foster a speak-up culture and overall transparent workplace is to allow employees to voice their concerns without fear of repercussions.

Importance of anonymity and security

Traditional whistleblowing can be risky, and employees often fear the negative repercussions of their actions, even if they are doing the right thing. Internal coercion can also become an issue when multiple parties within the organization begin to pick up on a problem. This fear can deepen the secrecy and even deter possible whistleblowers from stepping forward. Additionally, there has been a negative connotation around whistleblowing, assuming that a person has ill intent in being a “snake” or “rat” to their colleagues. Implementing anonymous reporting tools helps to mitigate these internal issues by putting all employees in a position of accountability to each other.

Providing employees at all levels the opportunity to anonymously report their concerns can significantly reduce risk and allow them to instill trust in their employer. Now more than ever, people want to work for organizations they can trust and that have a good company culture. One of the best ways to help foster a speak-up culture and overall transparent workplace is to allow employees to voice their concerns without fear of repercussions. The reporting tool helps to create mutual accountability for each member of the organization, no matter their title or level of responsibility. Effectively, everyone can trust the process and feel comfortable speaking up when it feels necessary.

What next?

With a constantly changing security landscape, it is increasingly important for organizations to have strong compliance in ethics reporting. Having a workforce of individuals who feel comfortable and a sense of accountability towards reporting on security breaches and misconduct within the organization is essential for securing your business. In addition, your employees will feel more secure in their positions and comfortable bringing up noncompliance issues when allowed to do so anonymously. Implementing ethics reporting tools is just one part of creating a secure and transparent work environment for everyone at all levels of the organization.

About the author:
Shannon Walker is the founder and president of WhistleBlower Security Inc., a global provider of ethics reporting services. WhistleBlower Security is Women Business Enterprise Canada certified, making it the only woman-owned and managed certified ethics reporting business in North America. Shannon frequently speaks around the world on whistleblowing, ethics, corporate culture and diversity.

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