“Tone at the top” is an often-used term to describe how an organization’s leadership creates an environment that fosters ethical and responsible business behavior. While tone at the top is important and a vital foundation, is it enough?
The reality is that when leaders communicate the organization’s vision, mission, core values and commitment to appropriate ethical behavior, what really drives the culture and resonates with the organization’s employees is what they see and hear every day from the managers to whom they report. If the behavior of middle managers contradicts the messaging and values conveyed from the top, it won’t take long for lower-level employees to notice. Because the top-down emphasis on ethical and responsible business behavior in an organization is only as strong as its weakest link, it is vital that the organization’s tone at the top be translated into an effective tone in the middle before it can reach the rest of the organization.
Three dynamics drive this collective culture, or the “tone of the organization”:
(1) Don’t assume that both tone in the middle and tone at the bottom are aligned with the tone at the top. Alignment is the name of the game. The greater the number of layers of management in the organization, the greater the risk of incongruities in the respective tones at the top, middle and bottom, and likewise, the greater the risk of executive management being unaware of serious financial, operational and compliance risks that may be common knowledge to one or more middle managers and rank-and-file employees. Further, information is often distorted as it moves up the management chain, creating disconnected leaders.
(2) Don’t assume everyone is engaged. The extent of engagement is vital to building a strong, ethical culture. A lack of engagement drives absenteeism, turnover, fraud, misappropriation of assets, safety incidents, quality defects and loss of customer focus.
(3) Recognize the stakes: Many financial, operational and compliance risks are embedded in the organization’s processes. Many decisions are made and actions are undertaken on the front lines by middle managers and their teams, not by executive management. The decisions to act or not to act present opportunities for excellence as well as the potential to undermine the organization. To the extent these actions result in policy violations and significant omissions, they present risks in a wide variety of areas, such as product or environmental liability, health and safety, trading, employee retention, or security and privacy concerns. Risks can fester and smolder when repeated errors and omissions occur within processes, creating potential for significant surprises later.
To address these “tone of the organization” dynamics, executive management and directors should:
Following are some suggested questions that boards of directors may consider, in the context of the nature of the entity’s risks inherent in its operations:
 “Managers and Ethics: The Importance of ‘Tone in the Middle,’” Gael O’Brien, Business Ethics, February 2012.
 “Boards Should Monitor the Tone at the Bottom”, Dr. Larry Taylor, NACD Directorship, October/November 2011.
 The Coming Job Wars, Jim Clifton, 2012.
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Jim DeLoach has over 35 years of experience and is a member of Protiviti's Solutions Leadership Team. With a focus on helping organizations respond to government mandates, shareholder demands and a changing business environment in a cost-effective and sustainable manner, Jim assists companies in integrating risk and risk management with strategy setting and performance management. Jim has been appointed to the NACD Directorship 100 list from 2012 to 2016.