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Mood in the Middle Versus Tone at the Top

mood4If you want to do the right thing in the ethics and compliance world, follow Donna Boehme (on Twitter (here)), in her regular columns in Corporate Counsel and other publications, and at her website (here)).

Donna knows what she is talking about.  She consistently challenges the idea of “tone-at-the-top,” when it’s talk, not walk (here).  She explains that the concept is overused because it begs the real question – what is the culture of the organization?

Donna is right – in fact, she is usually right.  A company that has “tone at the top” may be mitigating a serious risk – that is, misconduct in the C-Suite.  However, tone at the top does not guarantee full compliance by everyone in the C-Suite (as powerfully explored in the 2013 RAND Symposium report  “Culture, Compliance and the C-Suite” (Here)).  And we all know that C-Suite misconduct often results in severe damage to a company.

Even when a company does all the right things at the senior management level, the real issue is whether or not that culture has embedded itself in middle and lower management.  A company’s culture is reflected in the values and beliefs that exist throughout the company.

A culture survey, assuming it is properly designed, may be one way to measure whether the message of ethics and compliance has reached the middle and lower levels of the company.  Basic questions, if answered honestly, can usually unearth the true culture in a company.mood

Some of my favorites questions for a survey focus on what the respondent would do if they observed someone: (1) engaging in unsafe behavior; (2) stealing or committing fraud; or (3) violating other provisions in the code of conduct.

An equally relevant question is whether or not the respondent views the company’s reporting and disciplinary system as fair and reliable.  Often, this question will identify if the respondent believes the disciplinary system favors senior employees over middle and lower-level employees.

Another important – and probably more reliable – tool to assess the mood in the middle and lower levels is to conduct focus groups where the facilitator promises confidentiality and reassures every participant on the need for honesty.

Focus groups provide important information and reliable indications of the mood of the company.  It is a tool worth exploring and using when needed to inform a compliance program.

The overall health of an organization is not measured by whether senior management gives lip service to embracing the culture, but how they have acted to drive it- as reflected in ways to measure performance and culture in the other parts of the company.

It is too easy for every senior manager to parrot back the company line – the CEO has made culture an important priority, and senior managers are quick to fall in line and repeat mood3the mantra.  Indeed, what else would you expect the senior management team to do?

In the end, the real accurate measure is reflected in the actions taken by everyone in the company.  The real ethical culture is expressed every day by the actions of officers, managers and employees.  Surveys and focus groups provide a glimpse of what is usually pretty clear to everyone – is everyone at the company where we work dedicated to promoting an ethical culture?

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