What is the role of ‘Tone at the Top’ in setting culture?

  • Boards that set a high tone for both character and performance engender more trusted and higher performing organisations.
  • Ensure appropriate consequence management and that incentives schemes don't reward inappropriate risky behaviour.
  • The chair, all directors and the CEO are the organisation’s chief integrity and ethics officers (as integrity and ethics cannot be delegated or outsourced).

Businessman looking out at landscape view

Most refer to the setting of a high tone as being a high bar for honesty, integrity and ethical behaviour noting that it is a foundation stone for forming and shaping a robust, resilient and ethical culture.

What is the ‘tone’ and what is the ‘top’?

When we talk to boards and executive teams about setting a high tone we talk about setting a high bar for both organisational character and performance — in that order. And when we talk about character we talk about integrity, ethics and risk management.

Wikipedia points out that the term, ‘tone at the top’, originated in the field of accounting and referred to the transparency and integrity of the financial statements and other reporting to shareholders. The term has been used much more widely recently and primarily refers to the tone set by the board of an organisation, but it can also refer to the tone set by the audit and/or risk committee, other board committees as well as the tone set by the CEO and executives.

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