Middle Managers: On the Front Lines of Business Ethics

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While going over the vendor list for new office construction, Daniel Miron noticed that his financial services firm’s carpet supplier already had one contract with the company — and wasn’t doing a very good job. He also found out that the vendor was one of the firm’s clients.

Miron reported the ethical breach to his superiors and questioned the wisdom of the choice of vendor. But the supplier stayed on. A year later, the firm was targeted by the state’s attorney general in a lawsuit for its cozy relationship to clients.

Many jobs were lost, and “many people's lives were ruined,” Miron said.

Miron couldn’t single-handedly change his firm’s questionable practices, but his story points out how important middle managers are as enforcers of corporate ethics. More than 10 million workers occupy the first few rungs of the management ladder in America. In fact, one out of every five workers in the U.S. is a manager, a record high

They’re also among the unhappiest workers. The job has, as the Atlantic’s Bourree Lam puts it, “all of the downsides of being a subordinate, combined with all of the downsides of having to tell people to do things they don’t want to do.”

Indeed, Webster’s Dictionary defines a middle manager as “a person in a company who is in charge of employees but is not involved in important decisions concerning the company.” 

The Face of Management

Middle managers are the people most employees report to, and they’re the face of management seen by clients and the public. That position on the front lines means they are indispensable for a company realizing its ethical goals.

The approach to ethics needs to be two-pronged, says Tracy Miller, a lecturer and assistant chair of the University of Dayton’s Department of Management and Marketing.

“It has to be believed by your leader,” Miller said. “Your top management has to believe that this is important enough in the workplace to invest resources in it. They can’t just have this policy, and say, ‘Now you middle management carry it out,’ because you can’t carry it out in a vacuum.”

If middle managers are to implement those ethical practices, Miller says those managers need resources to implement those ethical goals — whether that’s money, man-hours, free time, company policies or just opportunities to voice their opinions.

“Middle management is key, because they’re the interface with the employees,” Miller said. 

Chris MacDonald, author of the Business Ethics Blog, agrees. 

“Thinking of ethics as something for senior management is a huge mistake,” he said. “For one thing, at big companies the very top level — the CEO — might change every four or five years. So the most senior managers aren’t necessarily a consistent voice on ethics.” 

MacDonald says middle managers “carry” a company’s ethical culture because “they’re the ones who have a long-term commitment, a long-term interest in the company’s reputation.” He says companies should make an equally long-term commitment to ethics training.

“For a lot of companies, ethics training is part of the onboarding process, so there’s an inevitable focus on new employees, not middle managers,” MacDonald says, stressing that ethics have to be reinforced throughout a manager’s career. 

Achieving Ethical Goals

Susan Wittan, a recruitment specialist at staffing agency TeamPeople, explained how her company does it. Once a year, TeamPeople brings all its managers to headquarters to inform them of changes to best practices, and also to share best practices learned at the field offices.

Wittan said corporate representatives also visit managers in the field frequently, to coach them on management and business practices, “because no one can come in knowing all of the customs and practices that TeamPeople implements.”

These considerations underline the importance of middle managers in achieving a company’s ethical goals, and the importance of investing to make that happen. 

After all, middle managers are not automatons, serving as a conduit from senior management to staff. Ideally, they’re the empowered leaders who actually implement ethical practices, and preserve a company’s reputation, every time, as in Daniel Miron’s case, they have to make a judgment call.

Middle managers are, as MacDonald puts it, the most likely to say, “in the face of a proposal that bends the rules, ‘That’s just not how we do things around here.’ ”