Bridging the Gap in Reporting Sexual Misconduct (html)
How the Top Ten U.S. Companies Rate on Hotline Availability
While sexual misconduct is grossly under-reported for many reasons, one reason may be that victims and survivors are unaware of all the options available for reporting. Even if a company actively and successfully educates its employees about options it makes available internally, sexual misconduct can and does take place on the periphery of organizations with affiliates such as interviewees, conference-attendees, consultants and vendors soliciting a contract, who don’t have access to internal resources.
Section 301 of the Sarbanes Oxley Act of 2002 requires that audit committees of the Board of Directors of publicly-held companies have “confidential, anonymous” procedures for employees to submit “concerns regarding questionable accounting or auditing matters,” i.e. concerns that could result in financial impact to the company. Many companies have chosen to implement a system by a phone line, sometimes operated by a third-party, through which complaints are compiled into reports and then channeled to the Audit Committee. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, it has become apparent that sexual misconduct has the potential to have a material impact on a company’s management and finances. Because a CEO can manipulate information that passes through HR, the anonymous hotline to the audit committee may be one of the few ways for people to report misconduct of top management.
To demonstrate organizations are truly interested and committed to anonymous reporting, it’s critical that they ensure that information about reporting systems is not buried in a Code of Conduct, but widely disseminated and identifiable, both internally and externally, through commonly available tools.
Ideally, a company’s reporting hotline phone number would come up in a simple search on Google for an anonymous hotline. The search result would indicate that anyone having a potential ethics, fraud or sexual misconduct complaint, whether an employee or not, could report through the company’s official channel. Messaging would indicate the hotline was a confidential and anonymous way to report, and that it was available 24 x 7, not just during business hours. Likewise, the company’s messages would clearly state the company was interested in reports. Further, the company would offer a website where it would be possible for reporters to upload documents substantiating their claims.
We reviewed the top 10 U.S. companies by revenues and how easy it was to find their anonymous hotline number through a Google search. In the process, we learned that half of the top 10 appear to be trying to get the word out, with some room for improvement. Discouragingly, four did not have an easily identifiable number, half of those four are considered tech giants. One of the top 10 employers not only makes its number hard to find, but clearly presents information that intimidates people from reporting.
We note that messaging in many of the search results is confused between ethics, integrity, conduct and compliance; mixing the branding of the company and its hotline service provider makes this worse. None of the search results we examined spoke to reporting sexual misconduct as a violation of ethics or a code of conduct. How a victim or survivor of sexual misconduct would know anonymous reporting is an option is hard to tell.
From March 24-28, 2019, we looked at differences between the search results of the 2018 Fortune 500 Top 10 U.S. companies (by revenue) when the company’s name and the words “anonymous hotline” were entered into a search at Google. We considered:
• positions of the phone number, if it appeared, within search results;
• descriptions that might encourage reporting, such as whether the words “anonymous” or “24x7” were apparent;
• whether additional systems such as a reporting website were promoted;
• whether the concept of a “hotline” was obscured by marketing jargon; and
• whether messages encouraged or discouraged reporting.
Note that we did not consider it relevant whether or not an employer had paid for placement of their hotline. For large employers, the cost of advertising a hotline on Google is minimal in comparison with the potential cost of an unidentified culture of harassment and a relatively small price to pay to ensure that outsiders can find a way to register complaints.
Companies are listed below starting with the largest employer. Images of the first set of results for each employer are in appendices to this report.
WalmartThe United States’ largest employer ensures that its hotline is the top result under the title “Report a Concern,” along with an email address that can be used:
While the top result does not indicate the number is anonymous, the second result indicates “you may report your concern anonymously.” The third search result also shows the number.
ExxonMobil manages to get their important message into the first search result below an advertisement for the company:
In addition, in the summary for the third result (see Appendix B), the company gives this positive message:
“ExxonMobil encourages employees and contractors to ask questions, voice concerns and report any suspected violations of company policies. In addition to our open-door communication procedures, ExxonMobil has several confidential mechanisms for reporting, including a 24-hour “hotline” phone number and a mailing address.”
It’s a little unfair to include Berkshire Hathaway in this list, chiefly because it is mostly a holding company. However, because it appears in the top ten companies at Fortune, we’ve included it here.
The first search result under “berkshire hathaway anonymous hotline” is the phrase “Berkshire Hathaway Ethics and Compliance Hotline,” and the second result is “Berkshire Hathaway Inc. Code of Business Conduct.” The phone number appears under the second result but is not clearly the Ethics and Compliance Hotline.
Unfortunately, clicking on the first result, which would seem to be the obvious choice, takes you to a page for Berkshire Hathaway Energy Co. Clicking on the second Code of Conduct search result and searching for “hotline” finally takes you to the link for reporting, next to the number for anonymous reporting.
The fourth result of the preliminary search is particularly encouraging: “Warren Buffett loves corporate hotlines – bad breath and all.” (see Appendix D)
Unlike the Walmart, ExxonMobil and Berkshire Hathaway search results, Apple’s anonymous reporting system information does not appear in search results for “Apple anonymous hotline.” The top result refers to HRWeb, a password protected site for Apple. Below that result, Google has inserted a set of questions, starting with:
People also ask
- “Is Ethicspoint really anonymous?”
- “What is Apple’s code of conduct?”
Because there is no clear connection between Ethicspoint and Apple, we clicked on “What is Apple’s code of conduct?” which leads to a possible link about Apple’s Supplier Code of Conduct, not Apple’s company Code of Conduct. After the “People also ask” section, the next two search results are related to “Supplier Responsibility.” The fourth result is an article from November 2013 about Apple employees reviewing the Code of Conduct. (see Appendix E).
A search for “unitedhealth group anonymous hotline” gives the following results:
#1) Code of Conduct – UnitedHealth Group
#2) Ethics & Integrity – UnitedHealth Group
#3) “Using the Compliance Help Center – EthicsPoint”
While “compliance” is a common legal term at a director level, it could easily be construed to be referring to whether the employee needs help being more compliant. No phone number comes up on the first page of results. Note as well that EthicsPoint is in the title of the third result, and it’s unclear what its relationship to UnitedHealth Group is. This can be contrasted with McKesson below, which manages to refer to both EthicsPoint and McKesson in the title of the search results.
Given no phone number visible on the first page, we selected the UnitedHealth Group Code of Conduct pdf and searched for the word “hotline,” which returns zero results because the hotline is referred to as “Compliance & Ethics Help Center.” Questions in UnitedHealth Group’s Code of Conduct actively discourage reporting and intimidate by implying that the person reporting may be engaged in illegal activity or cause harm to the company or themselves.
McKesson’s anonymous number comes up in the second search result.
Despite the branded names assigned to the line, “Integrity Line” and “EthicsPoint,” which confuse the user as to whether this is a method for reporting sexual misconduct, the message that the number is available 24 x 7 is also in the second search result, and the company name is clearly associated with EthicsPoint.
Is it possible there’s something worse than not having your hotline come up? Would sending people to the wrong number count? Searching with “cvs health anonymous hotline,” CVS’ first search result actually comes up entitled “EthicsPoint – CVS Health,” but then refers people to a 1-800-SHOP-CVS line.
The second search result also references EthicsPoint:
“Why has CVS Health contracted with EthicsPoint for reporting of matters? EthicsPoint is… What happens when I contact the CVS Health Ethics Line? When filing…”
Clicking on this result loads an FAQ, which does not have the phone number on it.
The third search result is “Ethics & Compliance” for suppliers. Fourth is the CVS Health Code of Conduct with a reference to the Workers’ Compensation Hotline. Finally, the fifth search result, a second pdf of the CVS Health Code of Conduct indicates the “CVS Health Ethics Line anonymously and toll-free at 1-877-CVS-2040.”
Amazon’s search results don’t start off well as the top search result is “Ethics Hotline Fails – The FACE of Amazon – Google Sites” with a description:
I have tried the ethics hotline multiple times but that seems to be a joke and more of a line to give employees a false sense of security. Currently, in my building…
Google has inserted a set of questions below the first result:
-How do I contact Amazon hiring department?
-How do you call off Amazon?
-How do I report an employee to Amazon?
-Does Amazon have a code of ethics?
The next search result below these is “Report a violation of selling policies” and the third is “Hotlines: Call Centre Inquiry Communism: Anonymous … - Amazon.com.” The fourth encourages reporting with “Bezos to Amazon employees: email me with workplace complaints…” followed by a 2011 inquiry of someone wondering whether Amazon had a whistleblower contact number, and someone suggesting that “a couple of years ago, there was an ethics hotline.”
Clicking on the “Does Amazon have a code of ethics?” refers you to an SEC filing of Amazon’s Code of Business Conduct and Ethics dated 2006. On the plus side, this document does indicate “Amazon… will not tolerate any illegal discrimination or harassment of any kind” and refers to policies in the Amazon.com Owner’s Manual. Still, we’re a long way from a number you can call.
At the top of AT&T search results (and we did use the ampersand) is a separately highlighted box, clearly announcing:
Unfortunately, at the time that we were writing our conclusions, copying and pasting the enticing Web Reporting Site URL resulted in a 404 Page Not Found message. The phone number is repeated in the fourth search result. Extra points to AT&T for calling their number a “hotline,” and not spinning it as an “help line.” The other disappointment with AT&T is that the language is so employee-biased. Where should interviewees or suppliers report?
GM’s top search result, “Read Next in governance & Ethics Help… - GM Sustainability Report” references “Help Employees Speak Up. Employees can talk to supervisors or use confidential hotlines to share concerns—making it easy for them to..” Unfortunately, no number is present on the page.
The second result is a reference to the Code of Conduct for Investor Relations. The third is a general Contact Us about GM brands. The fourth is entitled “Speak Up! GM’s Non-Retaliation Policy Page 1 – Awareline.” In between the second and third results are set of “People also ask” questions that are irrelevant.
Selecting the top search result takes you to an inspiring page expressing employees can speak up through confidential hotlines and describing that GM’s Awareline is operated by a third party, 24/7. Unfortunately, this 2017 Sustainability Report is chock full of facts, but no phone number.
Taking a chance that the fourth search result might encourage someone to “Speak up!”, we clicked on it, and found not one but two browsers couldn’t find the page.
Reporting sexual misconduct is hard enough without additional barriers to reporting. We’ve summarized the results in this chart:
Handing out grades, we wanted to give A’s to the top five that managed to get their phone numbers into the first or second search results, but each receives an A- for different reasons. We’re giving Exxon Mobil an A- because even though its number appears in the first search result, it emphasizes that the phone number is for employees. AT&T also had an A until we found a 404 Page Not Found when we selected the prominently advertised reporting link; it also emphasizes employees. Berkshire Hathaway receives an A- for getting its number in the second result but being unclear that it is specifically their reporting number; they also emphasize reporting is for employees. Walmart receives an A- because even though it gets the number out, it’s unclear that it’s confidential. McKesson was a strong contender for an A as well, especially getting the company name and the name of their hotline provider, EthicsPoint into the top two search results. However, the results are confusing because the number is referred to in one result as the “Integrity line” or in the second result as “EthicsPoint toll-free hotline.” Which line should someone call at which company?
CVS Health gets a B for getting the number as a fifth result on the first page of search results. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to give a D to Amazon, Apple and General Motors, which just fail to get their numbers into search results, or worse, send people to unfindable pages. UnitedHealth Group earned an F. Nothing says, “We don’t want to hear from you” like suggesting the person reporting an ethics violation might be engaged in illegal activity.
Fortune 500 Company
For companies and their audit committees truly interested in encouraging reporting of sexual misconduct, we recommend reducing barriers to reporting by doing the following:
- Ensure that your 1-800, anonymous reporting hotline is the first search result for any search involving your company’s name and the terms “sexual harassment,” “sexual misconduct,” “sexual assault,” or “anonymous hotline.” If you have to do so with paid advertising, the cost will be minimal in comparison with the cost you are likely to incur at the end of the increased frustration of someone who goes to an attorney first because they didn’t know you had an anonymous reporting system.
- In this brief survey of the top employers, the hotline was only clearly called a hotline at one company, AT&T. At two others, it was referred to as an Ethics and Compliance Hotline and an Ethics Hotline. At two companies, a differently-purposed number was called the “hotline.” At others, the number to call was assigned obscure, branded names that virtually ensure outsiders would have no way of finding it: Ethics Line, Helpline, Ethics & Help Center, Integrity Line, Awareline, and branded names that are meaningless to the average worker: NAVEX Global and EthicsPoint. Keep it simple. It’s a hotline. It’s your hotline. If you are not going to call it a hotline, be sure that the number pops up at Google when someone searches for your company’s name and “hotline.”
- Ensure that everyone understands that the hotline is for anonymously reporting sexual misconduct. Yes, it’s an ethics hotline, but when someone is subjected to discrimination, assault or harassment, they’re not thinking they’ve been subjected to an ethics violation. They shouldn’t have to make the leap that what happened to them might have financial repercussions for the company.
- Make it clear that you welcome anyone, not just employees, to contact your company with a complaint of sexual misconduct, even if Sarbanes-Oxley doesn’t require it.
- If your hotline is for anonymous reporting, ensure that the term “anonymous” always precedes the term “hotline.”
- After the term “hotline,” always include the phone number. Don’t bury it in pdfs.
- While we suspect other companies have anonymous websites for reporting, only two mentioned they had websites in search results. Include an anonymous website where users can submit documents and evidence supporting their report. Ensure the website URL is also available in your search results.
- Ensure that your company’s tone from the top, whether expressed in articles or search engine results, encourages people to report, expresses that you welcome complaints, and explains that you prohibit retaliation. A recent study has shown that, when CEO’s indicate preventing sexual misconduct is a priority, employees also perceive it to be.
- Minimize governance jargon. Drop the word “compliance” from your messages about reporting. “Compliance” sounds as though you’re going to make your employees comply, even when they are reporting violations.
I’m With Them is a nonprofit committed to reducing sexual misconduct. For organizations, we have other recommendations and resources we are happy to share. Contact us if you would like more information.
If you are a victim or survivor of sexual misconduct seeking to report anonymously, we would urge you to start as we did. Search for “anonymous hotline” or “anonymous line” and the company name. If that doesn’t work, search for the company’s Code of Conduct, and search for “line” within that document. Unfortunately, many employers have a long way to go.
I’m With Them hosts a website that connects victims and survivors of work-related sexual misconduct who share a perpetrator in common. For more information, visit us at https://www.imwiththem.org.
Walmart Search Results
ExxonMobil Search Results
Berkshire Hathaway Search Results
Apple Search Results
Apple Search Results
McKesson Search Results
CVS Health Search Result
Amazon Search Results
Amazon Search Results
AT&T Search Results
General Motors Search Results
Feldblum & Lipnic, “Select Task Force on the Study of Harassment in the Workplace,” U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, June 2016
Sarbanes-Oxley “Hotline” Procedures: Who Should Be Doing the Listening,” FIndlaw, https://corporate.findlaw.com/litigation-disputes/...
Hart, Chloe; Dahl Crossley, Alison; Correll, Shelley; “When Leaders Take Sexual Harassment Seriously, So Do Employees,” Harvard Business Review, 12/13/18, https://hbr.org/2018/12/study-when-leaders-take-se...