Ethics Hotline Multicultural Considerations

Before implementing an ethics hotline or other internal reporting mechanisms, it is important to take cultural differences into account. Earlier this year, attorney Matteson Ellis blogged about this topic in a post titled “Considering Cultural Nuance in Your Latin American FCPA Hotline.”

Reporting mechanisms like ethics hotlines, Ellis says, need to be sensitive to local cultures in order to be effective. He identifies five ways that organizations are adapting their internal reporting programs to Latin America, although taken more generally, the advice is sound regardless of country or region.

1. Use the local language.  Ethics hotlines, other reporting mechanisms, and training materials should be presented in the main local languages with, as appropriate, local idioms and/or local dialects. As an example, Ellis point out that the Portuguese language of Brazil is not necessarily the same as the Portuguese language of Portugal; if the intended audience is in Brazil, communication materials need to reflect the difference.

2. Clearly explain the ethics hotline’s purpose. Compliance officers should take extra care to explain the focused purpose of the anonymous hotline, to reduce the incidence of off-target calls. Ellis explains that compliance practitioners in Latin America report that once employees begin to report potential anti-corruption violations, they sometimes also begin discussing many other issues having nothing to do with bribery or corruption. This can overwhelm the ethics hotline if addressing personnel issues is not the intent.

3. Clearly explain the ethics hotline’s process.  The company should inform employees that the anonymous hotline is intended to help the company protect itself, not necessarily to help them. Employees should not expect to receive a final report with findings.  Although, they should be able to count on being kept apprised of progress in the internal review, even if it’s as simple as indicating the phase, such as preliminary investigation or conclusion.  As Ellis states, this demonstrates that the company is responding and reduces the potential that the employee will take the same information to law enforcement.

4. Stress anti-retaliation protections. In many parts of the world, including many Latin American countries, employees may have a very reasonable reluctance to come forward, whether due to a fear for personal safety, lack of faith in the courts to protect them, or other legitimate reasons. Companies need to really stress and demonstrate that ethics hotlines are anonymous and that there is a zero tolerance policy towards any form of retaliation. Ellis suggests also giving employees the option to submit tips by email or other methods in addition to hotlines.

5. Ensure qualified ethics hotline managers. Ellis recommends that people who manage or staff anonymous hotlines and other reporting mechanisms should be able to engage with callers according to local customs and norms, and should be independent from the business operations of the company. They must be able to respond to complaints in a way that elicits good information and also avoids creating unnecessary legal exposure for the organization – a particularly difficult issue in Latin America, he says, due to the region’s strong labor protections. This example highlight’s the importance of becoming familiar with local and regional cultural nuances, practices, and laws.

The Ethical Advocate ethics hotline supports multinational clients in all sectors, maintains current awareness of international regulatory and data privacy laws, and works with communications specialists to understand local and cultural differences in order to offer tailored solutions when implementing a reporting system. Please contact us to learn more.


Ellis, Matteson. “Considering Cultural Nuance in Your Latin American FCPA Hotline,” FCPAmericas blog, April 1, 2013.