Best Practice
May 25, 2012

The tone at the top

Are you inciting “wrongdoing” in your organization? Though you are probably bristling at that suggestion, there is a very real possibility that comments or suggestions you have made may have prompted an employee to commit wrongdoing.

It is a fact that the “tone at the top” plays an enormous role in creating a culture of “right-doing” in an organization as well as one of wrongdoing.

The manner in which a senior manager gives direction, takes decisions, behaves or treats people can render an organization vulnerable to unethical practices. Consider the scenario of a manager telling an employee that she wants to see results “at all costs” or a comment such as “I had better not see numbers like those ever again.” Statements such as these can cause some employees to rationalize unethical behaviours.

Whether it be to meet a superior’s expectations, to keep one’s position or to avoid being berated, certain employees may take actions that, normally, they would not even consider taking. Though there may be no personal gain for an employee to falsify numbers on a report to ensure that his boss does not see numbers “like those,” the rationalization to do so can surface in an insecure, fearful or dishonest employee.

In fraud risk assessments there is what is called the “leadership risk profile,” which examines the way an organization’s leaders behave and whether their conduct may be conducive to encouraging employees to commit fraud within their organizations. This profile looks at leadership styles, behaviours and the manner in which the leader makes decisions and its correlation to increasing an organization’s vulnerability to fraud. There is no doubt that this profile could be expanded to other types of wrongdoing other than fraud.

Dwight Eisonhower wrote, “you do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.” Creating a culture of fear where “failure is not an option” within an organization is fertile ground for wrongdoing at all levels.

There is a story of a CFO of a large multinational company who made a mistake that cost his organization millions of dollars. He walked into the office of the CEO, advised his boss of his mistake and handed him his letter of resignation. The CEO read the letter slowly, looked at his employee and dropped the letter in the trashcan. He then turned to his CFO and told him that he had just learned a lesson that cost the company millions of dollars and that he didn’t intend to let him use this newfound knowledge in another company. Wouldn’t you like to work for this guy!

A common mistake that most managers make is taking for granted that their message is well understood by employees. A message is not only communicated by words but also through one’s actions, including body language. People are very sensitive to the subtle messages that are unconsciously sent to them. If the body language and the behaviours do not mirror the words that are stated, the message becomes murky and open to interpretation.

The Canadian leadership guru, Robin Sharma, has written that, “one of the most important of all leadership skills is self-awareness.” Being aware of how your messages and how your behaviours are being perceived will go a long way in preventing any misinterpretation of your expectations. There must not be any doubt in your messaging that your directions are to be followed using ethical practices. It is also important to be aware of how your inner circle chooses to communicate your directions and your behaviours within your organization. Have you ever heard someone say, “the boss is going to go through the roof when he hears about this.”

Regularly mentioning the importance of ethical practices in your meetings and conversations with your staff, dealing with integrity issues in a fair and timely manner, and being aware of how your actions may be perceived when dealing with difficult issues will reduce your chances of sending any unwanted messages to your employees.

Wilful blindness on your part when becoming aware of unethical practices or any delays in dealing with unethical employees can assist some employees in rationalizing unethical behaviours.

As the leader of your organization you are accountable for your employee’s actions. Ensuring that your messaging fosters ethical behaviour in your organization is a much better investment than having to spend time and energy dealing with wrongdoing issues. Mark Twain said it best when he stated, “always do what is right. It will surprise some people and astonish the rest.”

Wayne Watson, a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer and federal public servant, is president of W2 Investigation Consulting (W2inv.consulting@rogers.com or www.w2investigationconsulting.ca).

SIDEBAR
·    Talk about ethical practices regularly in your meetings and conversations with staff.
·    Deal with integrity issues in a timely manner.
·    Be aware of your verbal and behavioural communications.
·    Ensure your messaging leaves no room for the rationalization of unethical behaviours.

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