Use the Alarm When You Need to (and not Otherwise!)

“Isn’t that bothering your ears?” I asked as I checked in for my cross-country flight this morning. An alarm was blaring so loudly that I couldn’t hear the questions being asked by the gate agent. The red light spun ominously amongst the cacophony. “No, it happens sometimes. The bags sometimes get stuck and that sets off the alarm. Someone will fix it.”

As the sound and lights warned of profound danger, none of the customers in line moved. They mostly covered their ears and hoped it would stop. I finished my check-in and walked toward the gate.

Red alarm beacon

Becoming Desensitized is Dangerous

A critical job of a compliance officer is to sound the alarm when things go wrong. When we get a dangerous speak-up report or a notice of an investigation, fast action is necessary to protect the company and ensure a timely response.

But what happens when we abuse that privilege? Leadership becomes desensitized and stops listening to us.

The truth is, people ignore warnings when they don’t believe they’re important. A study found that in fire drills of medium-sized buildings, less than 25 percent of occupants interpreted the fire alarm as an indication of a real emergency.

This explains why so many people die in fires despite alarms going off. In one notorious incident, the deadly fire at Woolworth’s department store in Manchester, England, people stayed in the store despite alarms sounding and even visible signs of smoke. It’s surmised that they didn’t leave because others weren’t leaving.

Keep Emergency Language for Emergencies

We need to alert leadership to potential risks. It’s part of our job. But there is a big difference between realizing a new regulation might require a quick and painful response versus the types of events constituting an actual emergency. Sound an immediate alarm if there is:

  • A significant data breach and/or a ransom attack
  • Major violence or death at a work location
  • An employee taken hostage
  • A speak-up report implicating high-level executive or board member that could lead to a major PR scandal or high-risk litigation
  • Notice of a potential prosecution or regulatory investigation.

Everyday compliance-critical events don’t rise to the level of emergencies requiring response. These likely include:

  • New legislation that will significantly affect the company or its operations
  • Speak up reports that don’t open the company to major PR or immediate litigation risk
  • Bullying, harassment, or other HR-related matters.

Do these things need to be reported up the leadership chain quickly? Absolutely. But they don’t rise to the level of emergency.

Coloured blocks that are green, yellow and red representing a scale from low to high risk

Use a Risk-Based Approach

If you’re not sure whether something rises to the level of flashing red lights, use a risk-based approach to decide. Consider the following questions:

  • Does this need to responded to immediately?
  • If I wait to alert leadership for an hour or a day, will it significantly affect the outcome or response?
  • Might this lead to a public relations disaster or a scandalous news report?
  • Does this implicate the CEO or board members in a significant way?
  • Would the CEO, senior leadership, or board think that you’d failed in your job if you don’t report the problem with alarm bells?


By thinking through these questions before responding, you can save the alarm bells for when they’re really needed. That way, when there really is a crisis, people will respond accordingly.

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Kristy Grant-Hart

Kristy Grant-Hart is the founder and CEO of Spark Compliance.
She's a renowned expert at transforming compliance departments into in-demand business assets.