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Business Ethics

3 Ways to Help Middle Managers Create an Ethical Culture


By Josh Young Oct 17, 2017

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When large scale corruption and ethical failings hit the news, the majority of the blame falls on senior leadership. And it’s true that senior leaders have a large part to play when it comes to ethical corporate culture—a but so does middle management.

If middle managers are willing to look the other way, ignoring the improprieties of leadership, front-line staff, or their peers, it is impossible for your business to build a healthy ethical culture.

So how can your business empower middle managers to make the right decisions?

Trying to foster a healthy, ethical culture in your company? Read: Building a Culture of Compliance: What Your Business Needs to Know

1. Prepare for the Inevitable

Middle managers operate in the trenches and are often your first line of defense against corporate corruption or scandal. If these mid-level supervisors aren't regularly addressing ethical issues regarding day-to-day practices, your business could be in trouble -- particularly if no one at your company is bringing up these issues.

Given the pivotal role that middle management can have in enforcing (or ignoring) corporate ethics guidelines, you should make sure that they are well prepared to handle these issues when they arise.

Offer regular ethics training to your supervisory staff, providing them with clear examples of what constitutes inappropriate behavior and what should be done when an issue arises. While you're at it, you should also provide general ethics education to your workforce as well. When they know what issues to bring up with their direct supervisors, ethical oversights will have less time to fester.

2. Engage in Conversation

We've all heard about the importance of "tone at the top" in creating a healthy corporate culture. And for your middle managers to truly understand the scope and strength of your organization's commitment to ethical guidelines and policies, your senior leadership needs to communicate this message to mid-tier managers regularly and consistently.

Bring up the ethical impact of new policies or processes in corporate meetings, and regularly outline in company emails or newsletters why proper behavior is critical to your business. In addition, incorporate ethics discussion into performance reviews.

While a top-down discussion is important, middle managers also need to feel safe when bringing up ethics concerns with senior leadership. Far too often, corporate ethics guidelines are upended to satisfy growth or profitability targets that are impossible to achieve without "cutting corners." And if all of your mid-range supervisors are too worried about their careers to point out unreasonable expectations or push back on ethically-destabilizing policies, you may not hear about these problems until they are national headlines.

3. A Matter of Metrics

During nuclear disarmament talks with the former Soviet Union, then President Ronald Reagan frequently quoted the Russian proverb, "Trust, but verify." And while your company's ethics policies aren't quite as high-risk as thermonuclear annihilation, those words of wisdom can prove just as useful for your business.

While it is important to empower your management staff to enforce and uphold corporate guidelines, your business should also routinely verify that these directives are actually being followed by middle managers.

By actively tracking both internal and external financials -- preferably using some manner of analytics platform -- your company can more easily identify irregularities and the potential for corruption. Similarly, high turnover in a particular department can indicate all manner of potential issues -- such as a culture of harassment, a toxic work environment, or poor management.

The Next Step

Obviously, middle managers are not the only ones who bear responsibility for promoting ethical behavior at your business. It is only when senior leadership, middle management, and front-line employees work together that your business will be able to promote and foster a culture of compliance.

To learn more about how our code of conduct and ethics training can help your organization build a strong "tone in the middle," request a demo of our courses.

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