Many business executives will be familiar with the idea of a company strategy, sometimes referred to as a vision. This sets out the goals of a company, which are set at the top and are established throughout the company; being taught from the top executives all the way down to the part-time workers. But this vision is often profit-focused, concerned mainly with how to make money and how not to lose it.

To combat the notion that companies are only concerned with profit, the idea of ‘Tone-at-the-top’ came about as a means of establishing an ethical climate within a company; detailing how a company can make a difference to stakeholders outside of monetary transactions. For example, a company could set the ‘tone’ to be that the resources which are used in the company should be recyclable and not wasted. Setting such ‘tone’ to be passed down throughout a company will ensure that the company recognises that it has a responsibility not to be wasteful in resources when carrying out it’s practises, which would demonstrate how a business can have a positive impact on stakeholders and not necessarily driven by profit.

This is not without it’s flaws though. For a start, the motive behind the ‘tone’ could still be profit-driven but masked under the guise of ethical responsibility. Sure, not wasting resources is good for the environment (which would demonstrate environmental stewardship within a business) and is ultimately good for some stakeholders, but in actual fact, the chief executive may not want his staff wasting resources because it is expensive and lowers the potential profit which the company makes. Would it be so bad to have both intentions as a motive for setting the tone? Would it only be ethical to set tones which are for the sole benefit of shareholders and stakeholders alike, without making any such profit on them?

But setting this problem aside, there is also the simple idea that the employees near the bottom of the chain simply do not care enough about the tone set for them to carry it out. It might not bother a part-time worker that he could turn off the lights when not using a room for the sake of not wasting electricity; if it makes his job harder, why should he have to do it? Consider also that maybe the part-time employee chooses only to keep his job for the paycheque and consider that maybe he is being paid minimum wage in return for long or hard hours. What incentive would the ethical ‘tone’ set by the chief executive offer to such employee at the other end? It is more likely that the employee would see such ‘tone’ simply as a request not to waste resources for the sake of money, never mind any ethical motives the company may appear to have.

As shown, the concept of ‘tone-at-the-top’ is simple, but in practise it can be hard to establish a tone without it being subject to criticism of the motives behind such tones. Whether or not profit-making is ethical is irrelevant; the fact of the matter is that a business making profit through ‘not un-ethical’ practises would already be setting a good ‘tone’, not only for it’s employees, but for the wider society.