Twenty years in the field of business ethics training have shown us that many organisations fail to engage their employees in the ethical issues that stalk everyday business life. Many also fail to address the systemic issues that gave rise to their ethical problems in the first place.

When the crisis hits, the message comes down from on high that all employees must attend an obligatory ethics training session – what we refer to as the “ethics sheep dip” that immediately follows adverse media publicity. Then things promptly return to normal, or at least until the next time!

“Ethics sheep-dippers” pay a heavy price for their short-sightedness. Not just in terms of repeating unethical exposures, adverse media attention, loss of public trust, the loss of senior staff, regulatory fines and the imposition of remedial compliance regimes. Perhaps more importantly, they miss two golden opportunities. The first is to get their house in order and establish its future integrity. The second is to engage the hearts and minds of employees in this noble task; to move them to the point of principle and, with their willing help, raise the ethical floor below their organisation and their industry.

It’s not just that much of ethics training fails: it goes further than that. Some training actively annoys employees and is experienced by many as disenfranchising. It annoys them because they feel “done to.” It annoys them because they see their leaders getting away with a different standard of behaviour to the one employees are being asked to sign up to. It annoys them because they see the system itself, that gave rise to the unethical behaviour in the first place, not changing.

Rather than feeling cared for and protected by company values and ethics, these employees feel corralled and browbeaten into an accountability that benefits the compliance department and not themselves.

More than ever before, managers and employees need to be made aware of research findings from the science of behaviour ethics. Drawing on research in behaviour dynamics, a behaviour ethics perspective can help professionals, at every level, better understand their own behaviour in the domain of ethics, and compare it to how they would ideally like to behave. It is only by reflecting on the inconsistencies between our desire to do the right thing and how we actually respond to issues in the workplace that we can “walk our talk”: that we can maintain the ethical standards that are more reflective self-believes is our preferred way of behaving. To be effective then, ethics training must be designed to take employees on a journey of self-learning and self-reflection as a precursor to understanding how they can find themselves blindsided by ethical issues at work. It will involve a facilitated conversation around existing ethical challenges at work using scenarios and dilemmas written in their unique workplace language and based on research into ethical risks that have occurred in the past. This pre-work ensures the training is experienced as relevant and authentic to their needs.

The best learning programs, however, are still of limited value, if leaders don’t also inquire into the wider context that gave rise to the ethical breaches. These need to be addressed to prevent further ethical slippage. This involves undertaking a values and ethics audit to identify how your culture is supporting unethical behaviour — how your culture inhibits employees from raising red flags in the early stages.

Courage is required as leaders may find that it is they themselves who are sending the wrong messages about what is important. It is leaders who are unconsciously setting up their organisations for outrages by creating unethical contexts where employees feel they have no choice. Where they must go along to get along or because they fear failure or retaliation.

Organisational leaders need to be invited by critical stakeholders such as their boards, audit or risk committees, industry bodies, government regulators, superannuation trustees and public media to show more integrity in responding to exposures of unethical regimes.

Even when leaders find themselves reacting to poor publicity and ethical failures, there is still an opportunity to use the crisis for organisational renewal. It is the silver lining in the crisis, the opportunity to engage employees in an authentic and values initiative and training programme designed to build a robust ethical culture to underpin future success.

Learning about ethics at work in a behavioural context builds ethical cultures, skills employees in ethical management and nurtures sustainable enterprises. It addresses issues of concern at both the individual and the systems level while at the same time enabling everyone to play a part in the new narrative being woven. It offers leaders so many more benefits beyond the expediency of an “ethics sheep-dipping” initiative.

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