Hotline Hangups

When it comes to preventing harassment and discrimination at work, the times (and the laws) are changing.

Employees expect company leadership to ensure a safe, inclusive workplace, and executives feel positive pressure to build trust and retain top talent. New legislation is catching up to this reality: Employers in New York, for example, are now required to provide annual interactive harassment prevention training as well as a form for reporting.

While forward-thinking organizations are responding by adopting innovative reporting systems, others are still relying on dated solutions such as telephone hotlines. So what’s the problem with hotlines?

An insufficient system

While well-intentioned, telephone hotlines usually don’t provide a comprehensive solution. Most hotline systems are operated by an external third party that collects information from the employee and then passes it along to the “proper channels.” These systems offer many different features, including:

  • Ability to flag reports by priority level, as determined by the employer
  • Access to an automated recording system to leave a voicemail report outside of business hours
  • Option for the employee to remain anonymous during the report, especially if reporting as a bystander or witness

Third-party hotlines are billed as employee-focused because they provide a confidential and potentially anonymous means of reporting.

But hotlines are designed to be one-way: The goal is to gather information rather than to guide the employee through the reporting process or to encourage confidential two-way communication. When the call is over, the employee is often left without any follow-up, let alone feedback regarding a resolution.

Rather than using a third party, some employers simply encourage employees who experience harassment or discrimination to call their HR representative or manager directly. This misguided advice can lead to underreporting, uncomfortable and potentially unsafe interactions, and breaches in confidentiality that may damage trust.

Underreporting and unknown issues

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission estimates that 70% of workplace harassment and discrimination goes unreported. Chronically underused reporting solutions like hotlines could be one reason.

Organizations often fail to publicize their hotlines, perhaps only mentioning them in employee handbooks. Low call volumes are frequently read as indicating a healthy culture, when in fact employees just aren’t using the system. And if your employees aren’t reporting incidents, you’re left vulnerable to a host of unknown issues that could escalate before you have the chance to intervene.

For better anonymous reporting, look to AI

There’s a reason that hotlines are still around: If employees know they exist and are willing to talk to the human on the other end, hotlines provide a basic, legally compliant way to gather information about workplace incidents.

Primary benefits of hotlines

  • Employers can opt to allow anonymous reporting
  • Employees who don’t have access to computers still have a simple way—the phone—to report

Primary downsides of hotlines

  • The humans who staff hotlines are still likely to introduce unconscious bias into the interview process
  • HR can’t follow up with employees who report anonymously via hotline

Thankfully, we can now leverage technology to make anonymous reporting accessible while also reducing the risk of unconscious bias and allowing HR to follow up.

With Spot, employees can use their phone or computer to report incidents in private and at any time of the day or night—without being constrained by business hours, a crowded workspace or open office environment, or lack of access to a computer.

Spot guides employees through the process of documenting what happened, using AI to ask reasonably intelligent follow-up questions throughout. The interview, conducted by a bot, is designed to prompt employees to recall more details with greater accuracy, producing more complete reports. Since employees are communicating with a neutral third party (a bot), there’s no risk of the bias or judgment that might come into play when having a conversation on the phone or in person.

Unlike other reporting tools, Spot allows for confidential, anonymous two-way interaction during the investigation of a report, including follow-up interviews driven by HR. If you need to ask your employee for further clarification or want to give them information on the resolution of a report, Spot will communicate on your behalf while preserving anonymity.

If you’re interested in an anonymous harassment reporting tool that’s available for your employees 24/7, get in touch at