When Is Ethics Training Not Really Ethics Training?

I just posted a similar version of this over at my Municipal Ethics News and Views blog last night and realized that it really belongs on here as well. Readers of this blog won't be surprised by these comments but I guess I never get tired of talking about this issue…

When is ethics training not really ethics training? All the time, it seems!

It is amazes me how often ethics training programs are proudly trotted out by providers or clients only to find that they fall into one (or more) of three barely-even-marginal categories:

  • Programs that only review the rules. There are obviously lots of rules and everyone needs to know them. However, reviewing the rules, in itself, is hardly ethics training. Employees at all levels of a company need to know how to put the rules into practice, how to easily spot problems and potential problems in themselves and others, and what to do when they see those problems and potential problems. Simply knowing the rules doesn't help them learn those essential skills and yet it's exactly a lack of those skills that causes far more ethics problems than does a lack of knowing the rules. 
  • Programs that don't discuss the values and principles the rules are there to reinforce. If employees don't understand the values and principles on which the rules are based, then how are they going to know how best to apply the rules? More importantly – and I know that my audiences get tired of my repeating this – if you're going to expect people to act ethically, they better have a pretty good idea of what to do when there isn't a rule for something! Frankly, I have no idea how to make that happen without talking at least as much about values as the rules.
  • Programs, regardless of what they cover, that simply provide a written or PowerPoint-driven review. (And to add insult to injury, these programs are often followed by – or sometimes even substituted with – some kind of fairly meaningless canned test.) Might that approach be useful for giving folks a basic overview or reminder of a few simple things? Sure. But let's not fool ourselves – that type of 'training' is really better at meeting risk management oversight objectives than anything else (i.e. "It's not our fault! That employee was required to review that material and pass a ten point test on it every single year!"). Please… If you want folks to really 'get' ethics, you'd better use a training program that allows them to actively discuss the real-world issues they face and to problem-solve around any barriers they see to making good on their ethical and legal mandates.

In my experience, far too many organizations are entrenched in using these three substantially sub-par approaches. In fact, they are so used to them that they will often actually ask for them when presented with an alternative. When I say that I do programs that are largely interactive and that I do far more than just review the rules, these types often look puzzled or annoyed. To them, doing more than the bare minimum feels inefficient, unnecessary or just plain weird. Unfortunately, the fallout from those attitudes shows up in the countless needless and costly ethics problems we read about in the newspapers every single day. 

I certainly sleep better at night knowing that I offer programs that most audiences find to be extremely practical. After all, that's what they really need.


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