Creating a culture of ethics is often frustrated by a lack of attention and commitment by middle managers

Creating a culture of ethics requires all levels of employees believe that the organization wants to act ethically in all it does. Emphasis since 2001 on “tone at the top,” one of the legacies of the misbehavior by top management in the Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and other scandals, has helped many top executives realize they must create this tone by their own behavior. Too often, however, the behavior of middle managers remains unchanged, and undermines ethical messages and the creation of an ethical culture which is a corporate priority. If middle managers are not committed to the values and ethics, this is immediately apparent to the lower level employees. The implementation of ethics in an organization is only as strong as its weakest link as it flows down into the organization.

An organization’s “tone at the top” must be translated into a “tone at the middle” before it can reach the rest of the organization.

What is needed in every organization is an understanding by the top management and by the ethics/compliance professionals that they are seeking to influence specific behaviors of middle managers, just as they have focused in recent years on specific behaviors by top executives. The problem of motivating middle managers, however, is in many ways more difficult. Middle managers are given explicit and often unyielding financial, sales, and cost control goals to achieve. At times, they may perceive that top management is actually giving them the message to focus on the quantifiable business goals and not on the “softer” ethical goals, that the ethical messages were “for the record” and not real. At other times, they may perceive that top management simply does not realize they cannot meet the stretch performance goals without “stretching” the ethical standards of the organizations. In these cases, many middle managers decide for themselves to take the expedient path.

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