Why do so many business ethics and code of conduct training programs fail? They don’t manage to engage employees nor protect employers. For many companies, the annual code of conduct or ethics training session is a waste of time. People end up resenting the lack of opportunity given to discuss current ethical issues in the business.

These insincere practices lull companies into a false sense of security regarding risk management. Recent scandals and public enquiries have made us all aware of high-risk areas. Now, it seems intentional to not act upon this knowledge to eliminate known risks.

Much training fails simply because of its poor design and its lack of resourcing. 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. They overlook the employees’ innate need to make sense of the requirements and how to apply them. The compliance approach assumes everyone will have the same interpretation. One size does not fit all, and companies can’t ignore the myriad of different situations that arise.

Perhaps more insidious is the training that stays silent on the informal cultural priorities that shape workplace behaviour. For example, obeying the hierarchy, doing more with less, and making financial targets. Many companies insist that employees meet deadlines or stretch goals. Training often stays silent on unwritten rules where people see what behaviour is rewarded and take their cue from this.

Annual online training is often used instead of face to face interaction. Moving all programs online squashes authentic learning.  Many high profile global brands such as Wells Fargo or Volkswagen have been found lacking despite their state of the art ethics programs. This issue highlights why there is a need for 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 employees face. Then they must use this to tailor training content. Such design sends a powerful signal to regulators. It suggests 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 needs to be informed by the new behaviour sciences. These show how organisational context trumps employees’ 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. Retaliation may include fraud, data leaks and inappropriate behaviours.
  • Training also needs to be tailored to specific organisational contexts that are known as high-risk. Focusing on risky situations is more effective than focusing on high-risk individuals. Employees need to be skilled in managing corporate cultural pressures such as making the end of month sales quotas. Or in procurement areas, offsetting the pressures from ‘relationship marketing’ by suppliers.
  • Ethical issues arise daily. Conversations, in addition to timely and regular training, signal 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”. Don’t let informal ways of doing things 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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