Effective Ethics Programs Come From the ‘Middle’

By Traci Thompson

Any truly effective ethics program must enjoy top executive support — what many refer to as “tone from the top.”  Without continuous executive team commitment for its code of conduct and ethics program, a company’s effort to promote consistent ethical behavior can quickly lapse into a hollow, politically correct endeavor.

But while “tone from the top” is essential, more is needed to imbue a company with a culture of doing what is right. Unequivocal topside support is essential, but the backbone of any company’s ethical culture is its cadre of middle managers — those who implement organizational strategy, set day-to-day goals, provide daily interface and motivate employees.

Middle managers are the ones who provide consistency, stability and everyday leadership to employees. A company’s ability to have a relevant, sustainable and effective ethics program is tied directly to the success of its middle managers in delivering, promoting and prioritizing this message in day-to-day activities.

In July 2010, Elbit Systems of America embarked on a journey to redesign our ethics program. The refreshed program focused on “doing the right thing” for our customers, the company and each other. In designing our program, we devoted considerable time to understanding our audience. Focus groups were conducted consisting of employees from all levels of the organization, and companies of similar size and in varying industries were benchmarked.

Ultimately, we came to realize that while the initial acceptance of the enhanced program invariably is tied to the “tone from the top,” the true viability of our program was inextricably tied to middle managers’ willingness and drive to be the everyday face and voice of ethics. Understanding this, we made our middle managers our front line, interfacing daily and directly with our entire workforce.

One important element of the company’s ethics program is to challenge our middle management to discuss difficult ethical issues both amongst themselves and one-on-one with their employees. To facilitate success, three actions were taken to strengthen middle managers’ resolve.

The first was having executive leadership kick off the ethics program in person. Executives took the message directly to middle managers, traveling to each site and personally explaining the importance of ethics to the company. Each executive used the same structured materials at each site and in each meeting. This conveyed, directly and unequivocally, our opening message with clarity and conviction. These face-to-face meetings greatly enhanced our ability to set expectations, solidify our message and field questions from our middle managers.

Next, quarterly training real life “vignettes” were prepared for delivery by middle managers. Each training module includes a one-page instruction sheet that outlines key messages and thought-provoking questions to help managers initiate and motivate discussion on difficult issues during staff meetings. Middle managers are personally responsible for delivering the training and “owning the message.”  Every single ESA employee, on a quarterly basis, must engage in a face-to-face discussion of a current ethics topic with his or her manager, which in turn is tracked via our learning management system.

Finally, ethics representatives were engaged at each site. Representatives who were respected, cross-functional and, often, fellow middle managers were selected. Being on site, they are accessible and visible, and because they know the employees at each site, they can address questions in real time. Site representatives also participate in the development of the quarterly
training and, therefore, have ownership of the messages.

We have found that specific examples of difficult ethics issues meaningfully challenge our managers and employees, prompt them to think about what is right and wrong, and motivate them to openly discuss such issues whenever the right path is not crystal clear. Because such issues can sometimes touch on the different values systems of employees, discussions are not always easy or natural. Consequently, our tools (e.g., key messages and discussion-starter questions) had to be enhanced to provide a comfort level for the managers’ discussions. We also made clear that it was a requirement of the manager’s job to have such discussions.

As part of the “message from the middle,” there are five basic parameters of message “ownership.”  A consistent message distributed clearly and pervasively throughout the organization greatly enhances the likelihood that the overwhelming majority of all employees will start to “live” the message on a day-to-day basis. It flows from the ethics program office to site representatives, executives, middle management and employees.

The traditional “tone from the top” method relies heavily — indeed, exclusively — on senior management messaging/modeling, which is then coupled with annual training that often is delivered online. While efforts of this nature are certainly a step in the right direction, they often run the risk of a strong ethics message going stale or being forgotten.

To keep ethics more front and center, the “message from the middle” drives ethics through the organization, gaining momentum and buy-in at each step. We have found that regular ethics discussions between employees and managers are highly conducive to a more reliable, pervasive and predictable culture of ethics. The net result: Our employees find that “doing the right thing” comes naturally.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto

Topics: Defense Contracting, Defense Contracting

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