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Extolling the Virtues of Hot Lines

May 1, 1998
Related Topics: HR Services and Administration, Ethics, Featured Article
The use of toll-free hot lines has been on the rise in Corporate America as a way for employees to obtain advice on ethical matters. Their use is somewhat controversial, however, raising issues of confidentiality and whistle blowing. Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based Sears, Roebuck and Co., is among the companies that pioneered this concept. In this article reprinted from the Online Journal of Ethics, published by DePaul University Institute for Business & Professional Ethics, Daryl Koehn, director of the Institute of Business and Professional Ethics, speaks with William Giffin, vice president of Ethics & Business Policy at Sears about the Assist Line.

Q. I know Sears has been using an Assist Line for several years. What exactly is this service? Who can use it? And how did the idea for it evolve?
We have had the Assist Line for approximately three years. It’s available to all Sears’ associates, contractors and vendors. The decision to have an Ethics 800 number was more difficult than one might think. We were concerned about several things. First, we did not want to be the ethics police or the ethics snitch line. Also, we did not want to appear to be getting between employees and their managers. Finally, we did not want to look like we did not trust local managers to handle issues. Once we resolved those issues and got beyond them, we were okay.

Q. How big an operation is this line at Sears? How much does it cost per year to operate?
Our Assist Line has six full-time associates and several others who provide regular support. While we do not like to give out cost figures, we are confident that having the line saves us money by allowing us to be more proactive and quicker in resolving issues.

Q. Roughly, how many phone calls do you get per month? What’s the annual growth rate in number of calls?
We handle about 15,000 calls per year and the number is rising slightly every year. Although that seems like a lot, remember, we have more than 300,000 employees. Also the line is used for quick answers to policy questions and general guidance. Certainly, not every call is an ethics call.

Q. Why do you call the line an Assist Line rather than a Hot Line?
We call it an Assist Line because we wanted it to be known as a resource, not as a Hot Line. Hot Line suggests a crisis, and most people have needs that are not crises in nature. Employees and managers want to be able to access information and guidance without feeling like it’s a life or death situation. We’re kind of a cross between "911" and "411" calls.

Q. It seems as though it would be important to guarantee caller confidentiality. Does Sears guarantee this? Aren’t there some situations in which guaranteeing confidentiality is practically impossible? How do you handle these latter cases?
We offer confidentiality if possible. But you’re correct. Sometimes preserving complete confidentiality isn’t possible. We ask callers for permission to use their names and advise them of the need to do so. We also spend a great deal of energy to avoid unnecessarily compromising a caller.

Q. For the line to work, callers must think that their concerns will be addressed and resolved. When exactly is an issue judged to have been resolved and who gets to make this judgment? The caller or the operator?
Resolution is in the eye of the participants. We judge it in our office, the caller judges it, and our business partners like the human resources department judge it. Sometimes it’s a matter of alignment rather than agreement. What we’ve found is that the caller understands a perfect solution may not exist. Having an issue aired is enough.

Q. How is information gleaned from the line used within the corporation? For example, is it used to coach managers? To improve products or procedures? Can you share some specific instances of how the line has resulted in better conduct at Sears?
With a caller database of 15,000 plus per year, we have had a wonderful opportunity to review what these contacts mean. While we’re very careful not to give out too much data, we do provide a high-level strategic overview of what we’re hearing. I’d rather not give examples, but we have been instrumental in changing policy and procedure.

Q. What difficulties have you experienced with the line? What advice would you offer to our readers who are thinking about instituting such a line?
Nothing is ever unanimous. Our biggest difficulty is dealing with the small percentage of managers and associates who perceive us wrongly. It’s constant pick-and-shovel work to stay ahead of any possible criticism or problems. We feel we’re only as good as our general reputation. Tactically speaking, I would also recommend going slowly in actually installing a toll-free number. Get buy-in from the whole organization first and measure your success by how many people you help, not by how many people you catch.

Q. In your judgment, do those who call in have any special responsibilities—such as, to have verified their facts, to have first spoken to their managers about problems they’re having with their managers, and so on?
We don’t put too many burdens on the callers. We always ask the callers if they’ve discussed their issue with their managers; and we recommend they do that first. It’s rare that callers make up things, but not rare that they have a bias toward their point of view. We would still rather have them make a call to us than a call to an outside third party.

Q. Do you think this type of line could be used successfully in smaller organizations where it might be even more difficult to preserve the caller’s confidentiality?
That’s one of many hurdles we face. I recommend a toll-free number to any sized company. The rewards to every stakeholder are well worth the potential risks.

Q. Would you judge the Assist Line a success? On what data would you base your judgment?
Yes, I would judge it a success. Our internal surveys indicate a 90 percent positive feedback. We use an outside firm to measure ourselves, and that rating has been 92 percent positive. We survey more than 100,000 employees every year. Those measurements have been positive and have been improving every year. And, lastly, our usage is an indication of success. Our employees believe in us. The negative noise level is very low and the positive feedback is very high. Who could ask for more?

SOURCE: Reprinted with permission from the Online Journal of Ethics, published by DePaul University Institute for Business & Professional Ethics, 1998.

Workforce, June 1998, Vol. 77, No. 6, pp.125-126.

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