Gut checking your company's attitude toward ethics

Four questions help assess if middle management is committed to ethical business practices

As a football fan, I was pleased with the National Football League’s (NFL) harsh disciplinary response to the New Orleans Saints’ practice of providing financial incentives for inflicting injuries on opposing players. According to the NFL, the team’s head coach deserved the one-year suspension because the cash incentive violated an express rule against such noncontractual payments and, significantly, he obstructed the NFL’s investigation. The NFL’s commissioner said this clear “tone at the top” was designed to punish but also deter future compliance malfunctions.

This episode, however, offers a stark example of how a dysfunctional “tone at the middle” can undermine an organization’s compliance program. The NFL sets the compliance mandates, and the teams are expected to implement the processes and measures necessary to comply. In the case of the New Orleans Saints, the middle management (the general manager and coach) failed to echo the league’s tone, and the compliance calamity ensued.

If tone at the middle is necessary to an effective ethics program, then how do you assess whether the middle management is truly enlisted in your company’s ethics program? Here are a few gut-checking questions that may help assess your middle management’s commitment.

1. Does your company measure middle management’s engagement?

You can’t improve what you don’t measure, so how is your company measuring middle management’s engagement in your ethics program? Most companies survey their employees on various issues, so why not add some compliance and ethics questions to assess the commitment of middle management? Here are a few questions to ask your employees:

  • How comfortable are you raising ethics concerns with your manager?
  • Does your manager effectively respond to ethics and compliance violations?
  • Does your manager assist you with overseeing the ethics and compliance issues you face on a regular basis?
  • Do you know how to anonymously report ethics violations?

The answers to these questions will determine the strength of the tone at the middle. Hopefully, the data can be segmented in order to pinpoint weaknesses and set appropriate training priorities.

2. Is middle management investing in their employee ethics issues? 

I recently was asked to tailor ethics training to the specific issues faced by a manager’s team. In doing so, that manager demonstrated active empathy for his team’s unique ethical issues. How many of your middle managers are seeking that type of assistance? Those managers are champions of your ethics program and should be recognized accordingly.

3. Are employees recognized for being values champions? 

The more public and prestigious the recognition, the more effective the message. But even a note from the CEO or CCO will confirm that ethics matter at your company.

4. Do employees’ annual evaluations require assessment of their commitment to the company’s compliance and ethics program?

If your company values certain behaviors, then they show up in the employer’s annual evaluation. Do employee evaluations reflect the company’s commitment to ethics and compliance? If your compliance and ethics program is not part of the evaluation/promotion criteria, then the very people who must be your ethics champions will devalue it.

These questions help you assess whether your company’s “tone at the top” is mere words or an enterprisewide commitment. If it matters, it should be measured, analyzed and rewarded. If you have a good tone at the top, but a vacant tone at the middle, your program will most certainly fail.

Brian Martin is SVP and general counsel of KLA-Tencor Corp. Send your comments and best ethics practices to him at

Brian Martin

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