Hotlines and a Speak Up Culture

Ethics hotlines offer many benefits for businesses and other institutions, to include an increased chance of catching fraud and other wrongdoing early, compliance with regulatory requirements and internal policies, and support for a culture of ethics, among other benefits (see Ethical Advocate’s “Ethics Hotline Benefits,” June 4, 2015).

The last-mentioned benefit—support for a culture of ethics—is an interesting one. It is true that an effective ethics hotline can be part of the infrastructure of an ethical culture and it can support both the perception and the reality of an ethical culture. However, it is also true that an ethics hotline will be most effective in a culture that supports it.

Employees and other stakeholders must use the hotline in order for it to be effective. They will use the hotline if they trust the process and believe that speaking up is the right thing to do. This is much more likely to occur when “speaking up” is valued throughout the organizational culture, and not just as a means of reporting wrongdoing, either.

So, what is a “speak-up culture” and what does it take to create a culture where employees and others speak up?

Sylvia Hewlett, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, defined a speak-up culture as one “where we feel welcome and included, free to express our views and opinions, and confident that our ideas will be heard and recognized.”

As Hewlett reports, leaders who make employees feel included, free to express views, and confident they will be heard are those who 1) ask questions and listen carefully; 2) facilitate constructive argument; 3) give actionable feedback; 4) take advice from the team and act on it; 5) share credit for team success; and 6) maintain regular contact with team members. Organizations that can foster as few as three of those six behaviors on the part of their leaders and managers are more likely than other organizations to create and sustain a speak-up culture that “unleashes innovative potential and enhances collaboration across both distance and difference—a competitive edge for any … company.”

Employees and others who feel included, valued, and free to express their views are also likely to bring that “positiveness” to a more ethics and compliance-oriented definition of a speak-up culture—one where employees readily raise questions and concerns about the way the company is conducting business (Katz, 2013). According to Katz,

Creating a speak-up culture begins with ensuring that your company has the correct tone at the top. The commitment to foster an environment where employees feel comfortable escalating concerns must begin with a company’s board of directors and executive management. From there, it cascades down through the organization. Furthermore, having the correct tone must manifest itself in visible ways, well beyond the words in a code of conduct or other company documents or policies. Executives and senior managers must take the time to remind employees of the methods available to them for raising concerns, encourage them to speak up, and react appropriately and professionally when concerns are raised.

A broadly based speak-up culture will encourage and support employees and others to use the ethics hotline when they need to. And the existence of a well-run, effective ethics hotline will provide evidence in support of the culture.

Having such a culture across the organization will increase the likelihood that employees and others will contribute their good ideas and report their concerns. A win-win for all.

Ethical Advocate provides comprehensive ethics and compliance solutions, including ethics and compliance training and confidential and anonymous hotlines, to public and private companies and to educational and government institutions.


Hewlett, Sylvia Ann. “Creating a Culture Where Employees Speak Up,” Harvard Business Review, January 8, 2016.

Katz, Joel. “Creating a Speak-Up Culture,” Compliance Week, April 2, 2013.