Mike Volkov, in a blog post entitled “Mood in the Middle Versus Tone at the Top”, said, “Even when a company does all the right things at the senior management level, the real issue is whether or not that culture has embedded itself in middle and lower management.  A company’s culture is reflected in the values and beliefs that exist throughout the company.” To fully operationalize your compliance program, you must articulate the message of ethical values and doing business in compliance and then drive that message from the top down, throughout your organization.

The Evaluation of Corporate Compliance Programs – Guidance Document (2019 Guidance) made clear a company must have more than simply good ‘Tone-at-the-Top’; it must move down through the organization from senior management to middle management and into its lower ranks. This means that one task is to get middle management to respect the stated ethics and values of a company, because if they do so, this will be communicated down through the organization. The 2019 Guidance stated:

Shared CommitmentWhat actions have senior leaders and middle-management stakeholders (e.g., business and operational managers, finance, procurement, legal, human resources) taken to demonstrate their commitment to compliance or compliance personnel, including their remediation efforts? Have they persisted in that commitment in the face of competing interests or business objectives?

This requirement speaks to the greater role of non-compliance functions in a  fully operationalized compliance program. Indeed, one sign of a mature compliance and ethics program is the extent to which a company’s other corporate disciplines are involved in implementing and then taking forward a compliance solution. This approach can act as a lynch pin in spreading a company’s commitment to compliance throughout the employee base. It can also be used to ‘connect the dots’ in many divergent elements of a corporate compliance and ethics program.

What should the tone in the middle be? What should middle management’s role be in the company’s compliance program? This role is critical because the majority of company employees work most directly with middle, rather than top management and consequently, they will take their cues from how middle management will respond to a situation. Perhaps most importantly, middle management must listen to the concerns of employees. Even if middle management cannot affect a direct change, it is important that employees have an outlet to express their concerns. Your organization should train middle managers to enhance their listening skills in the overall context of providing training with their “Manager’s Toolkit.” This can be particularly true if there is a compliance violation or other incident which requires some form of employee discipline. Most employees think it important that there be organizational justice so that people believe they will be treated fairly. For if there is organizational justice, it engenders perceived procedural fairness which makes it more likely an employee will be willing accept a decision that they may not like or disagree with the end result.

Even with great “tone at the top” and positive “mood in the middle”, you cannot stop. One of the greatest challenges of a compliance practitioner is how to impact the most front-line employees or the “tone at the bottom”. One of the things you can do is assemble a compliance focus group to find out how business is done in the field and if it differs from what your company expects from an ethical and compliance perspective. Begin by assembling a group of employees who are familiar with the challenges of doing business in a compliant manner in certain geographic regions to discuss the challenges of doing business ethically and in compliance. Ask them questions about their understanding of your compliance regime. Then categorize the answers into the theory and practice of compliance in your company.

From this, test what is real in theory and in practice. You can check and see which employees are promoted more regularly; those who do business ethically and in compliance or those who meet their sales quotas every quarter? After you have internally tested, reassemble the original group and have them consider the beliefs that were articulated by them individually in the context of your how your compliance model is subsequently tested. Lead a discussion that attempts to identify what is different in practice and in theory. From there you can move from theory to practice  to fully operationalizing your compliance regime. Finally, and in the feedback step, test how more fully operationalized your compliance regime has become. These tests can be accomplished in the regular course of business or through a special project with a special team and separate budget.

By engaging employees at this level, you can find out not only what the employees think about the company compliance program but use their collective experience to help design a better and more effective compliance program. Employees want to do business in an ethical manner. Giving employees the chance to engage in business the right way, as opposed to cheating, will win their hearts and minds almost all the time. By using this protocol, you can not only find out the effect of your compliance program on the employees at the bottom, but you can affect them as well.

Employees often look to their direct supervisor to determine what the tone of an organization is and will be going forward. Many employees of large, multi-national organizations may never have direct contact with the CEO or even senior management. By moving the values of compliance through an organization into the middle, you will be in a much better position to inculcate these values and operationalizing compliance with them.

 Three key takeaways:

  1. Tone at the top – direct supervisors become the most important influence on people in the company.
  2. Give your middle managers a Tool Kit around compliance so they can fully operationalize compliance.
  3. Organizational justice is an additional way to help operationalize compliance.