ABSTRACT

Prior academic and practitioner literature argues that the ethical tone at the top of an organization is a key factor in establishing an effective internal control environment. Drawing on self-concept maintenance theory and in-group bias theory, this study predicts that entry-level staff auditors will disregard a company's ethical standards unless they observe a strong ethical tone from both their partner (tone at the top) and their supervising senior (tone at the bottom). Also, this study predicts that staff auditors will be more influenced by the tone of their supervising senior than the partner when these two individuals provide conflicting tones. In a 2 × 2 experiment that manipulates the tone set by a staff auditor's supervising senior and engagement partner, this study provides evidence consistent with predictions. Further analyses suggest that participants make less ethical decisions because they are less likely to view the situation as an ethical dilemma when either the senior or partner exhibits low tone. The results of this study emphasize that tone at the top is not, by itself, sufficient to produce ethical decision making; organizations must strive to foster a strong ethical tone throughout the entire organization, especially at lower levels of the organization.

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