The scathing Department of Justice Report last week on racism in the Ferguson Missouri police department underscores the importance of tone at the top.
In the wake of officer Darren Wilson’s shooting of unarmed eighteen year-old Michael Brown, and the rioting following the Grand Jury’s decision to not prosecute Officer Wilson, the DOJ conducted an intense investigation. The upshot of the 102 page report: The conclusion that the Ferguson police department has long engaged in a demonstrated pattern of racial discrimination. Also uncovered were numerous obviously racist police emails over a long time span.
An initial reaction by the city, upon learning of the offensive emails (including some that called President Obama a chimpanzee,) was the termination of the authors of the offending emails. While that is an appropriate and long overdue action, it ignores the fact that a culture of racial bias does not start at the bottom, but rather at the top. The old saying is that a fish rots from the head down. The same is true with cultures in corporations, not-for-profits, and government agencies.
It would be easy for business leaders to read about the Ferguson abuses and shake their heads in disgust, but never make a connection to what might be going on in their own companies. Business leaders need to think more broadly than about police departments and racial prejudice. What is the tone from the top at your company? What does it say about racial and gender equality, humanity, and respect for others? What does it say about customer care and quality? And what does it say about corporate responsibility and good citizenship?
Individual officers in any police department may well have prejudiced racial views, just as they have personal political and religious views. But if the tone set at the top of a police department makes it clear that discrimination is not tolerated, it is likely personal racial views will get checked at the police station door. The tone at the top can assure that police work is done in a prejudice-free manner.
If tone at the top suggests that racial discrimination is expected or encouraged, then even those officers not holding prejudicial views will tend to act in discriminatory ways on the job. Think of cases where tone at the top of companies encouraged fudging the books to make a company look more profitable than it is. Lower level employees, who were honest and ethical in their personal lives, find themselves slipping into doing what is expected of them at work.
It shouldn’t take a government or corporate disaster in the headlines to cause board members and business leaders to evaluate the tone from the top at their organizations. But if they’ve not done so recently, this is as good as a time as any to take a good look within.