Compliance professionals talk all the time about the importance of “tone at the top,” that accurate but overused phrase that means CEOs should demonstrate the importance of disciplined, principled performance to their workforce.
Tone at the top has always struck me as one of those things where you know it when you see it — so drop everything, and take a look at this tale of what Delta Airlines CEO Ed Bastain did several weeks ago.
As recounted in a post on Inc.com, Bastain skipped a meeting with President Trump that he and several other airline CEOs had requested, because the meeting conflicted with a long-scheduled family vacation overseas. Bastain had to make a choice, and chose to spend time with his family.
Apparently Bastain later explained his decision in a video distributed internally to Delta employees. A writer at Forbes.com managed to watch a clip, and Bastain’s words are worth quoting:
“Unfortunately, that meeting was set up at the very last minute as I was heading out of the country with my family on a long scheduled one-week vacation that would have caused me to cancel the vacation with my family. My family makes a lot of sacrifices with Delta. I ask them to do a lot of things; I wasn’t about ready to ask them to cancel a long-scheduled vacation.”
The meeting with Trump happened at the end of July. The airline CEOs had requested it to voice grievances they have with the Qatar government funding Air Italy, as that airline was expanding its flights to and from the United States. The CEOs were unhappy about state-sponsored competitors, and wanted Trump to intervene.
Perhaps to their surprise, Trump agreed to meet them. The CEOs of United-Continental (Oscar Munoz) and American Airlines (Doug Parker) did go and make their case; Trump told them to use the Transportation Department’s usual channels for filing a complaint.
Bastain, however, skipped town to relax with his family. Everyone involved in ethics and compliance should welcome Bastain’s decision.
Actions Set the Tone
Sure, in one sense, the message in Bastain’s decision is obvious: spending time with family is more important than corporate success. For ethics and compliance officers, however, the power of a decision like that is in the larger precedent it telegraphs to employees: that things can be more important than corporate performance at all. They do indeed exist.
Things like, say, ethical values.
What an action like Bastain’s really does is give compliance officers a specific, concrete example of what it looks like to put some things above corporate success. Employees can see that happen, and see that the company didn’t punish the executive for making that choice.
Now, make no mistake — President Trump was not happy that Bastain stood him up. According to NBC News, the president griped about it repeatedly, especially since Bastain was the one who had pushed for the meeting. “There was a lot of yelling,” one source told NBC. (That sounds like just another day in the Trump Administration to me, but whatever.)
Still, Delta stands by Bastain and his decision to take a week off. Politics had nothing to do with it, he insists; he just wanted to keep his promises to his family.
Those are all actions that employees can see and understand. Compliance officers can use a moment like that to say, essentially, “Here’s one time when a senior executive decided something was more important than corporate success. So we’re serious when we talk about all these other moments, these ethical situations, when you can put aside corporate performance in the name of something higher.”
This is an excellent demonstration of tone at the top from a CEO. This is stuff that employees see and absorb. This is what makes employees listen later, another time, when the CEO asks them to do something. This is what builds trust. #corpgov #compliance #ethics https://t.co/4NfViX3yuf
— Matt Kelly (@compliancememe) August 6, 2019
Actions matter. They are proof that the Code of Conduct and the mission statement and the ethical values aren’t just words. It’s like the old saying about toddlers: they remember only half of what they hear, but all of what they see.
That’s not because they’re toddlers; it’s because they’re human, and we all respond that way our whole lives.
Backing Up Your Tone
The big question, of course, is whether others within Delta could make similar decisions based on personal values and ethical principles. If they can’t — if Bastain’s decision smacks more of privilege than thoughtful appreciation of what’s important — that’s a sucker punch to Delta’s corporate culture.
That’s the other point CEOs need to consider about demonstrations of ethical values: if they want their organization to succeed, they need to assure that everyone else can make the same principles-based decisions that they do — and that those employees won’t be hung out to dry.
That’s where ethics and compliance programs come into the picture. But you’ll never succeed without that tone at the top, and that tone won’t succeed without real actions from the CEO that prove the company holds some things more important than corporate success.