Six Lessons that Redefine Focused Compliance Training: Lesson Five

by NAVEX Global

Lesson Five: Training Middle Managers

Why Tone from the Middle Matters

Middle Manager

The Importance of Middle Managers to Your Compliance Program
When it comes to managing risk and building a culture of ethics and compliance every employee plays a part. Senior leaders establish the priority, tone, and vision for an ethical culture. Rank and file employees give life to the vision when they consistently choosing to embody the standards. But, this vision cannot be realized without the critical role and influence of the supervisors who sit between these two layers.

Middle managers are the vital link, the connective tissue between the tone set by your senior leaders and your non-supervisory employees who implement core values on a routine basis. If the link is dysfunctional or non-existent attitudes and behaviors will not reflect a culture of ethics and compliance.

Supervisory employees are on the ground implementing strategy, advancing the goals of the organization, and most importantly having day-to-day interactions with your employees.  As a result, direct supervisors have the greatest influence on the adoption and implementation of values communicated by leaders of the organization. Managers shape employee perceptions about the importance of respect, ethics, and a commitment to doing what is right.

Managers May Not Be As Highly Regarded As You Assume
It is not uncommon for senior leaders and employees to have very different perspectives about the culture of ethics in their organization. Senior leaders often see employees on their best behavior and tend to have a rosier perspective of corporate culture. Non-supervisory employees see the world unfiltered through the day-to-day interactions with their colleagues and their manager. When employees witness their managers behaving unethically it can be particularly damaging to their attitude toward ethics and compliance and their resultant level of conduct.

The 2011 National Business Ethics Survey indicated a rising trend in the number of employees who perceive their supervisors as unethical (Chart 1).

Negative view of manager ethics

It is an alarming trend considering employees who view their manager as unethical tend to view their organization as unethical and are also less likely to demonstrate ethical behavior like sticking up for others or reporting observed misconduct. On the other hand, companies with strong ethics and compliance programs are characterized by less pressure on employees to compromise standards, lower rates of observed misconduct, a greater employee willingness to report misconduct and less retaliation (Chart 2).


Strong Ethics Programs

In a parallel trend to the rising rates of unethical conduct by middle managers, a survey conducted in the UK (ILM survey Added Values: The Importance of Ethical Leadership) found that they are increasingly having their personal and organizational values put to the test. The next chart shows an astonishingly high number of managers reported that they had been asked to do something unethical or even illegal (Chart 3).


Managers asked to do unethical things

In order for middle managers to be allies for the cause of creating a culture of respect and compliance, they must have the knowledge, skills, values and attitudes that leadership wants to see reflected in all employees.

Equipping Your Middle Managers
Manager misconduct is not always the product of intentional wrongdoing. In many cases, misconduct is the result of managers acting without necessary information or knowledge about what is expected or appropriate. 

You must arm your managers with the knowledge and skills that can really help them support your organization’s overall ethics and compliance goals. Consider these steps:

1. Lead From the Top
Ethical lapses and legal missteps have a disastrous impact on culture, and employee engagement. When managers respond improperly to allegations of misconduct, allow misconduct to continue, or they themselves engage in the misconduct the consequences for your culture can be severe.

When engagement levels decrease, employee productivity, retention, and your bottom-line often follow suit. 

Don’t assume that managers know what is expected of them. The reality is they may not fully understand their responsibilities. This is particularly true if they have been trained using outdated programs or check-the-box eLearning solutions.

Just like other major initiatives, the message of ethical behavior must come from and be fully supported by senior leaders. Leadership must send the message about what behavior is unacceptable, how managers are expected to respond, the prohibition on retaliation, and that everyone will be held accountable. Communicating in writing or even speaking to employees is simply not enough. Senior leaders must not only talk about expectations, they must take appropriate actions to enforce them.

Share the message in multiple formats, throughout the year.  Some practical examples of the things that have been successful for many organizations include:

  • Add a senior leader or CEO introduction to all eLearning programs
  • Ensure that senior leaders attend manager meetings and talk about expectations
  • Provide managers with written communications from senior leaders
  • Ensure that senior leaders attend or take all required training sessions programs

2. Provide Middle Managers with Context
Context is always important when aligning managers and employees around organizational values and expectations. We all want to know WHY something matters, and what role we as individuals play in the big picture.

When it comes to compliance it can be easy to gloss over or forget to communicate individual roles in the big picture.  When context is not provided, employees and managers may be less likely to get on board. So no matter how you are communicating with your managers about ethics and compliance, always make sure that you include information about:

  • The impact of the middle manager on their employees
  • That employees see their direct manager as a role model for the culture and values
  • The importance of the middle manager on employee engagement
  • Why compliance is good for business and how it protects the bottom line and their own budget

3. Focus on Complaint Management & Retaliation Prevention
No matter how hard you try, you will never be able to stop all misconduct from occurring. Employees and managers will make insensitive comments, have lapses in judgment, and your organization will periodically make a poor hiring decision that brings in a problem employee.

Where Employees Report MisconductThat’s why you have a process for making complaints, right? 

But many organizations make the mistake of stopping after they have implemented the process. They assume that managers will handle complaints properly. This is an assumption that often comes at a great cost to the organization.

When it comes to raising concerns, employees by astonishing numbers go to their manager or a manager one level up?   The Ethics Resource Center (ERC) has been assessing this trend for years as part of its National Business Ethics Survey. In the most recent survey released in 2012, ERC found that when employees made a report this is where they took their issue:

Managers make several common mistakes when it comes to employee complaints, and these mistakes can create real liability for your organization.

  • They downplay the complaint (“It’s not that bad” or “Is it really that big a deal?”)
  • They say they will deal with it but don’t
  • They tell the complaining employee to deal with it on his or her own
  • They tell the complaining employee that the conduct does not violate policy (without doing an investigation)
  • They treat the complaining employee negatively after he or she raises a complaint (classic retaliation)
  • They don’t really listen to the complaining employee
  • They receive the complaint but then forget to tell HR about it

These mistakes are much more common than you think. Whether intentional or not, they undermine your complaint process and your culture.  And the consequences for poor complaint management are clear. Retaliation claims are the number one charge type received by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and have been for the last 5 years. Even if many allegations are baseless, the reality is that handling the situation poorly can increase the liability.

Address this manager skill gap by providing your managers with training on how to handle employee complaints and how to avoid claims of retaliation.  Make sure that each course you deploy includes instruction for complaint handling and retaliation prevention. Consider a course that specifically addresses the topics of whistleblowing, reporting and retaliation.

4. Use Realistic, Scenario-Based Training
Training will be much more effective if it involves engaging and relevant scenarios. For the 10-12 key ethics and compliance risks (including employment law risk areas) it’s important to select training methods and solutions that will actually drive the right behavior.

Training should present realistic scenarios, where managers actually see real people struggling with relatable challenges. The information they review and tips they obtain from the training should be easily translatable into their own workplace.

This is where check-the-box training does very little for your managers. Simply watching a video or listening to someone talk about an issue does not educate effectively, change behavior, or give managers the tools they need to make a difference.

So when you are looking for tools that will really help educate your middle managers consider the following critical questions:

  • Is the training really scenario based or are merely a series of questions that include characters with names?
  • Does the training cover current trends and contemporary challenges?
  • Are the scenarios realistic and relatable or are learners looking at cartoons and evaluating simplistic or outlandish fact patterns?
  • Is the learning passive (like watching a video) or active (the learner must answer questions, get involved, and think about the right thing to do)?
  • Are the interactive questions assessing learning in the right areas (like how to spot misconduct, how to prevent misconduct, and how to talk to employees about expectations) or are they being quizzed on irrelevant information such as facts or dates, like the legal definition of Title VII and the year it was passed?

Careful attention to training middle managers about their role in preserving an ethical and compliant workplace will help ensure that all of your employees not only hear the message, but see it in action and believe in its importance.


Written by:

NAVEX Global

NAVEX Global on:

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