There are many steps that a firm working in financial services can take to build up a culture that respects ethical behaviours, but there’s only one that acts as the keystone holding all the others in place. That keystone is the ‘tone from the top’: in other words, how the firm’s leadership sets, supports and acts upon, the right behaviours that will embed an ethical culture across their firm.
Many of those ‘tone from the top’ decisions will be made in boardrooms, where priorities are set, performances monitored and challenges assessed. Yet it will undoubtedly fail as the keystone of a firm’s ethical culture unless such decisions are brought to the attention of audiences such as employees, suppliers and business partners. Executives need to not only make the right decision, but be seen to make the right decision.
There can however be a temptation to reinforce the positive nature of ‘doing the right thing’ with lots of positive messages about how the firm’s leadership is doing to deliver it. Resist that temptation, for ethical decisions are often tricky and sometimes messy. By all means make sure your staff know of your commitment to paying suppliers on time, but equally, make sure they know when you’ve dismissed a key member of staff for inappropriate behaviour, or when you’re right behind an account executive who lost a key client through a refusal to pay a bribe.
Being open with staff in this way has two benefits: it shows them that your commitment to ethics is strong enough to cope with both the rough and the smooth, and it encourages them to be open with you in return. An ethical culture will flourish when it is more something to be aired and discussed, and less something that they just get told about.
So where should you start with tone from the top? It may seem rather paradoxical, but listening is strongly recommended. What are your employees saying about ethics at the moment? What sort of feedback are they getting from customers? Every firm has a prevailing culture and finding out how ethics currently sits within it gives you the starting point, and the challenges, that should shape your own particular ‘tone from the top’.
All this should keep your firm’s communications team busy, however, before they roll their sleeves up and get stuck in, agree some ground rules with them. Building an ethical culture takes time and is not always an easy path. Consistency in how you communicate both the ups and downs along that path is important, for it helps sustain the credibility of your tone from the top.