I can’t imagine that anyone would reasonably argue against the importance of tone at the top in building and maintaining a corporate culture of ethics. But is it possible that we’ve driven this almost truistic stance a bit too far down the road? I’m thinking more and more that we have.
Make no mistake, I’m not suggesting that we need to be any less focused on tone at the top, it’s simply too important. Rather, I’m suggesting that we can’t let the lack of tone at the top impede efforts to build pockets of ethical culture within organizations in the absence of that tone.
I talk with far too many employees or not-quite-senior executives who have become so caught up in the need for tone at the top that when they don’t see it – and they so often don’t – this becomes an excuse for not doing as much as is possible to build and maintain at least a ‘subculture’ of ethics among the areas and individuals over which and whom they have control. To be clear, these are usually not individuals who run from responsibility or don’t see what needs to be changed. However, they have become so focused on their concerns about the lack of tone at the top that they have forgotten how much they can do on their own in spite of that missing tone from above.
At the risk of trading one truism for another, ethics ultimately come down to individual choices anyhow. So, even if appropriate choices aren’t actively modeled or encouraged from the top down, they can still be carried out at any other level starting from the individual and then up through the work group, department, division, etc. Conversely, a lack of ethical tone shown by senior managers, owners, or a board in no way prevents a manager or lower level executive from building and maintaining a culture of ethics within their particular managerial domain.
Can it be extremely discouraging to be an ethically-attuned individual or department in an organization without the best possible tone at the top? Sure. That can’t be a reason, though, to shrug off one’s responsibility for doing the right thing.