Why do so many business ethics and code of conduct training programs fail to engage employees and protect employers? For many of us, the annual code of conduct or ethics training session is a waste of our time and a source of resentment because it is a missed opportunity to discuss the real ethical issues people in the business.

Such inauthenticity also blindsides risk managers, boards and regulators into a false sense of security around risk management.  Since recent scandals and public enquiries have made us all know about where the high-risk areas exist, it seems almost wilful that this knowledge is not being acted upon to forewarn employees and eliminate known risks.

Much training fails simply because of its poor design and its lack of resourcing. It is hampered from the start when a strictly legal or compliance approach drives content rather than the needs of its intended audiences. Lawyers tend to focus on telling employees about what they can and can’t do instead of recognising employees’ innate need to “make sense” of the requirements and how to apply them. The compliance approach assumes everyone will make the same interpretation, so one size fits all, effectively ignoring the myriad of different situations arising in the service, marketing or sales context.

Perhaps more insidious is the training that stays silent on the informal cultural priorities that shape workplace behaviour. Cultural imperatives such as obeying the hierarchy; doing more with less; making financial targets; insisting employees meet deadlines or stretch goals. It stays silent on “the other message system” that prevails – where people ‘listen with their eyes’, see what behaviour is rewarded and take their cue from this.

Annual online training is often substituted for face to face enquiry and effectively squashes authentic learning.  The fact that so many high profile global brands such as Wells Fargo or  Volkswagen have been found wanting despite their state of the art ethics programs highlight why we need a new approach that is fit for purpose.

So how do you design ethics or Code of Conduct training with integrity?

  • The authenticity of the content is the first principle. Risk managers need to identify the real ethical challenges employee face and use this to tailor training content. Such design sends a powerful signal to regulators that leaders are genuine in their desire to create an ethical culture where employees are supported to do the right thing.
  • The design of content also needs to be informed by the new behaviour sciences highlighting how organisational context trumps employee’s values. Behaviour science insights enable leaders to design the cultures they want in collaboration with all employees. Organisational justice research finds that if employees see the organisation as unfair, they are likely to retaliate with workplace sabotage, including fraud, data leaks and inappropriate behaviours.
  • Training also needs to be tailored to specific organisational contexts that are known as high-risk rather than focusing on high-risk individuals. Employees need to be skilled in how to offset specific organisational cultural pressures such as making the end of month sales quotas or in the procurement areas, how to offset the pressures from ‘relationship marketing’ by suppliers.
  • Ethical issues arise daily and conversations and timely and regular training that checks in with how employees are doing, signals that leaders are keen to make it as easy as possible for employees to do the right thing. The frequency of ethical conversations offsets “cultural drift” where informal ways of doing things can gradually overtake the formal policies.

It’s time to reset the default button on code of conduct and business ethics training. Both employees and employers will reap the benefit of genuine workplace learning opportunities as a result.


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