Ethics and the Middle Manager: Creating "Tone in The Middle"
By Kirk O. Hanson
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
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.
There are specific behaviors which middle managers must
demonstrate in order for lower level employees to understand
that the organization is serious about ethics.
It is possible to specify the middle management behaviors that
will help the creation of an ethical culture. These are similar
to that of the top management but include some unique actions.
The key behaviors are:
- Talk frequently about the ethical values and ethical commitment
of the organization
- Anticipate ethical dilemmas which typically arise in his or
her area of responsibility
- Talk about how the ethical values and commitments apply to the
work of the specific group
- Talk about how the ethical values and commitments apply to specific
decisions the middle manager makes or participates in.
- Recognize ethical issues when they do arise
- Ask questions when the ethical action is unclear
- Make ethical decisions consistent with organizational values
- Report concerns about ethical and unethical actions to top managers
There are specific techniques which help the top to communicate
the organization's real ethical commitment to the middle managers
in ways that convince them the organization is serious.
Motivating middle managers to reinforce the ethical culture
of the organization by their own actions requires several specific
actions by top executives. Among them are:
- Top executives must themselves exhibit all the "tone at
the top" behaviors, including acting ethically, talking
frequently about the organization's values and ethics, and supporting
the organization's and individual employee's adherence to the
- Top executives must explicitly ask middle managers what dilemmas
arise in implementing the ethical commitments of the organization
in the work of that group
- Top executives must give general guidance about how values apply
to those specific dilemmas
- Top executives must explicitly delegate resolution of those
dilemmas to the middle managers
- Top executives must make it clear to middle managers that their
ethical performance is being watched as closely as their financial
- Top executives must make ethical competence and commitment of
middle managers a part of their performance evaluation
- The organization must provide opportunities for middle managers
to work with peers on resolving the hard cases.
- Top executives must be available to the middle managers to discuss/coach/resolve
the hardest cases
Professionals Should Train Middle Management" (BNA)
Wants To Be A Middle Manager?" (USA Today, August 12, 2007)
Kirk Hanson is executive director of the Markkula Center
for Applied Ethics and University Professor of Organizations
and Society. He prepared this briefing for the Business and
Organizational Ethics Partnership.