Tone at the Top

by Rachel Anevski, MAOB, PHR, SHRM-CP – June 22, 2020
Tone at the Top

Estate planning answers the questions: What happens when you die? How will your assets be distributed and to Originating from the field of accounting, the terminology “tone at the top” is generally used to describe an organization’s ethical climate or expected conduct, as established by its board of directors, audit committee and senior management. Hav­ing tone at the top is believed by business ethics experts to help prevent fraud and other unethical practices.

Conveying the Message

Is the tone at the top achieved exclusively when CEOs or managing partners speak at a board meeting or state of the union staff address and everyone leaves the room feeling a sense of understanding because the MP says, “…and the tone at the top is…?” Unfortunately, not.

So, how is it used appropriately? Tone at the top is a behavior that is replicated by every member of the organization, emphasized by management and lived through actions and activities set forth by the top executives. In firms that practice this best, you can find language that implies tone at the top in every governing document and process. It is the commitment the firm takes daily and mo­mentarily in its execution of all things. Let’s break it down.

Starting at the Top

The top is the CEO, president or managing partner. It is the one person with the most authority in the organization. This is who the message and commitment must come from; this is where it starts. Even firms that have rotating managing partners or office managing partners still have one individual directing the ship. From there, the executive committee and compliance committees (in larger firms) are the next level. It is imperative that all partners, both equity and non-equity, emeritus and those in name, emulate the tone as well, as they are looked upon as leaders as well as the united front of executive management. And since tone at the top is the ideology of ethically operating in collaboration with everyone and everything, it is only worth something if it becomes the tone in the middle and the tone at the bottom, too.

Setting the Tone

What is the tone or the message? It’s not just compliance with laws and ethics. It is the adherence to best practices in business that work specifically for the company, a set sales process, human capital practices, customer service brand messaging and the “how to” for procurement and retention of staff members. 

Tone is not communicated through a one-page whole office memo or posted on a website or intranet. It’s not a policy. You don’t have to dig through paperwork to find what it is or ask around for what it means. It is a message that is communicated repeatedly and through as many means and avenues of communication as possible. The tone at the top is part of everyone’s business development goals, compliance, auditing and financial controls. It is part of marketing, human resources, firm administration, technology and office management. Weaving tone-at-the-top messaging into education and training programs are common avenues of communication, but it shouldn’t stop there. It should be a visible part of every organized firm activity.

Aside from talking the talk, executives can walk the walk and demonstrate tone and their commitment to ethical conduct by their consistent actions. Firms do this when they create compliance committees and executive committees that review tone regularly. 

Those that can identify the tone at the top are amongst a collaborative team that, from top to bottom, hits on key drivers that move the firm forward. Firms that lack this strong and necessary tone may want to con­sider incorporating strategy, programming and communication methods to ensure their firm is moving ahead both ethically and culturally.


Rachel L. Anevski

Rachel L. Anevski

Rachel Anevski, MAOB, PHR, SHRM-CP, is the founder and CEO of Matters of Management, LLC, a consulting and talent acquisition firm specializing in professional services. Matters of Management is an NJCPA business services provider. Learn more at njcpa.org/benefits.

More content by Rachel L. Anevski:

This article appeared in the May/June 2020 issue of New Jersey CPA magazine. Read the full issue.