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Tone from the Top – From empty phrases to credible storytelling

Keep these three things in mind to motivate your employees and to actively promote the ethical climate in your company.

by Dr. Bettina Palazzo 2 min

    We all have seen the usual “Tone from the Top” phrases at the beginning of Codes of Conduct: “Integrity is the basis of our reputation and success…” or “Ethics starts with each and every one of our employees…” or “Our leaders serve as role models for the implementation of this Code of Conduct…”.

    Boring! Empty, abstract, and emotionless. This is not enough to motivate coworkers to actively work for the ethical climate in a company.

    What is missing? Three things:

    1. The WHY

    A good Tone from the Top first needs statements that concretely explain WHY ethics & compliance are important for the specific company. Here we need more than the usual truisms. We need statements that show that someone has seriously thought about this and has recognized ethics & compliance as a real business priority. The why for ethics is different in every company and industry. It’s about figuring out the ethical foundation of the organization. For example, if I am a manufacturer of safety belts and airbags, the ethical foundation of my business model is “road safety” and “saving lives.” Consequently, my company must live up to this ethical foundation and be trustworthy and act with integrity in its entire business conduct. Trust only works holistically! This link between the moral foundation of the business model and the ethics & compliance activities needs to be clearly defined and continuously communicated.

    2. Personal Storytelling

    If you want that people in a company perceive the commitment to ethics & compliance as credible and authentic, the leadership team must create the link between the general rules and values of the company and their own professional experience. How can they do that? With stories from their own careers: What was my most difficult ethical dilemma? What helped me? What did I do? They should not only tell success stories, but also share where they struggled. Top managers often shy away from telling personal stories in which they were not the perfect heroes or had doubts. But no one is ethically perfect, and only if the leadership team talks openly about ethical challenges at work, their coworkers will do the same. If you want to build a speak-up culture, there is no way around this. In these stories, it is also okay to talk about emotions. Ethics is also a matter of the heart. And as Goethe so beautifully said:

    “You have to talk from the heart if you want to reach hearts.”

    3. Action from the top

    The ultimate test of a credible tone from the top is not words, but actions. Employees are watching very closely how much time, budget and commitment their executive team is actually investing in ethics & compliance. In addition to regular communication on ethics & compliance topics, the true tone from the top becomes apparent in the difficult situations. For example, when a business deal is not done for ethical reasons or if a commercially successful coworker is fired for unethical behavior.

    This kind of Tone from the Top doesn’t happen by itself. Since the management team usually has just too many other issues on the agenda, the compliance department should take the initiative here:

    With creativity and friendly tenacity, they need to communicate the benefits of ethical leadership to their executives and provide them with tools that make it easy, useful and attractive to fulfill their role model function.

    Yes, this is not an easy task. But it is so much more effective than relying on overused and lifeless corporate scripts.

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    Dr Bettina Palazzo
    Dr Bettina Palazzo

    Dr Bettina Palazzo is convinced that unethical companies make people unhappy. That’s why she has spent 25 years working tirelessly to make business ethics a topic that is attractive to everyone. She helps companies and non-profit organisations advance the ethical skills of their managers.