Practical tips to teach your people ethics

These ideas will help you build an ethical environment in your company

Creating an ethical workplace is increasingly being recognised as an important corporate goal. This can be accomplished via a combination of numerous factors such as leadership, values, culture, a code of conduct, policies, systems and training. In particular, training as an approach to addressing workplace ethics has flourished to the extent that it has become a growing industry, with business schools, ethics organisations and consultants all offering support for organisations’ training programmes.

However, ethics training programmes often do not appear to have sufficient impact. There are a number of factors that influence the effectiveness of ethics training and which should be taken into account in the design of a training programme.

Take what is already known and the ‘knowing-doing’ gap into account

Attending a training course is generally an effective way to improve learning, for example, improving one’s ability in finance or labour practices by building knowledge and understanding of these topics. But this does not apply to the same extent to ethics because employees almost always already know what is right and wrong in the workplace (which is the essence of ethics). That unethical conduct stems from making a choice reflects a gap – the ‘knowing-doing’ gap – which should be taken into account in designing a training course. Therefore, instead of the course being aimed at just trying to add knowledge, the overarching goal becomes a change of attitude that will achieve more ethical behaviour.

Don’t teach what they already know

The programme does not need to focus on what the participants already know, such as the details of policies on fraud, bribery and corruption. One sentence should suffice: ‘The company does not tolerate fraud, bribery, or corruption under any circumstances.’ Time is better spent building clarity about how company values translate into behaviours and what this implies for the individual participants within the scope of their roles and responsibilities.

Teach ethics based on your ethical reality, not on abstract theory

The training should be based on the organisation’s current ethical reality. Using the results of an ethics survey allows course content to be customised to address the actual ethical strengths, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses, which significantly enhances its relevance for the company and the participants.

Combine appropriate theory and practice

The content should include a focus on ‘theory’ in the form of the organisation’s ethics policy, value statement, code of conduct, and supporting policies, and on ethics in practice. The theory component warrants an annual initiative to reinforce employees’ knowledge and understanding the organisation’s ethics policy and supporting codes and standards. This should also form part of the company’s induction for new employees. An electronic module with multiple-answer questions, where incorrect answers direct employees to the relevant code or policy, is a quick and easy intervention.

Supplementing this with bi-annual face-to-face discussion groups addresses the practical aspect of ethics: to clarify the application and implications of the company’s ethics in the workplace and to provide the opportunity for in-depth discussions on ethical challenges and dilemmas.

These design features, supported by relevant content, help to teach ethics effectively. But the real impact relies on a comprehensive approach to managing, improving and inculcating ethical behaviour, which extends beyond just one or two half-day workshops or training sessions a year.

By Cynthia Schoeman, MD, Ethics Monitoring & Management Services (Pty) Ltd
Published in HR Future
August 2012