Ethics in the Energy Sector



People often ask us, “How do you know if your programs succeed in raising the ethical floor?”. This case study seeks to answer that question.

Managing Values had developed a program for a major energy wholesaler and retailer in NSW. The program ran over 10 years and consisted of a series of ‘conversations’ conducted by line managers with their direct reports on typical ethical challenges. A range of key issues were identified through individual and focus group research and and these were developed into ethical dilemmas and scenarios for training resources. The key issues were:

  • use of company information for personal gain
  • use of resources – equipment & time
  • secondary employment
  • use of timesheets/overtime
  • behaviour towards other
  • nepotism;
  • gifts or benefits; and
  • conflicts of interest.


Further, a grid was developed to identify scenarios showing the topic area and what resources could be used to help make ethical decisions when faced with such a dilemma, as well as what values would be potentially compromised in each scenario.

The Roll Out


The senior executive team conducted workshops with their middle managers, who then ran workshops for their direct reports and then down the line to supervisors. In all 130 managers and supervisors received training. The training happened twice a year and each year a new set of resources was researched, developed and rolled out through a series of ‘train the leader’ workshops. The elements of the resources were: 

  1. DVD-based dilemmas (scripted dramas with actors playing characters from the business)
  2. A Facilitation manual
  3. Facilitation skills training ( a two-hour ‘train the leader’ workshop)
  4. Printed hand outs for participants with trigger questions for discussion in small groups
  5. Summary of points to be emphasised drawn from the Code of Conduct/Ethics
  6. An eLearning tool was also written incorporating material from the DVDs for those staff who couldn’t attend face-to-face and also for induction training.

DVD-based dilemmas

Each year, a steering committee drawn from all levels of the business, including field supervisors , would identify 2 ethical issues that needed to be highlighted. Managing Values personnel would then research these 2 issues and flesh out the ethical elements through interviews and focus groups (including/especially in field operations).

Outline stories would be developed, approved and then outsourced to a film production company. Managing Values’ principals would act as Executive Producers and script editors.

Facilitator’s Guide

Drawn up from the DVD material, it included some content on adult learning, how to set up the room, why ethics matter and printed handouts and summary points (items 4&5 above)

Skills training

Working in small groups to mirror the training session the managers would facilitate, it is a dry run of an actual, experiential training session; seeing the video; stopping at the pause points; and using the trigger questions from the Facilitators guide to experience what the participants would experience in the training rollout.

Stimulus for the ethics training

The Australian energy industry was highly regulated during the 2010s due to its being a conglomeration of Government Business Enterprises. As it was being readied for privatization it had assumed a high profile as a result of investigations into alleged unethical conduct of its business. Various reports had cited poor regulation of the industry, unnecessary infrastructure spending, and false and deceptive claims about energy demand; all of which had been at the very least strongly associated with significantly over-priced power supply and cost burden to the consumer. In this context, Managing Values conducted an intervention designed to improve the practice of ethical behaviours in the workplace of one of the large energy companies. The intervention focused on a behavioural approach to workplace ethical issues and was informed by contemporary theory and extensive field research on workplace ethics.

The company operated from a head office in Sydney, Australia and had depots in 18 locations covering 2.1 million residences and businesses.

Review and analysis of ‘lessons learned’


After 6 years of the program rollout, the client wanted/needed to know if the training and increased awareness of the ethical dimensions of their enterprise. They asked Managing Values to conduct an independent assessment. For this we used outside contractors with appropriate skills and training to carry out the assessment.

A sample of employees was recruited to take part in the post-Program evaluation including 6 managers, 4 focus groups, and 191 respondents to a qualitative survey questionnaire. Of the latter, 134 were Office Service Employees and 44 were Field Centre Employees or depot employees (13 respondents did not indicate in which area they worked).

Program design and implementation


The starting point for the Program design was to identify the prevailing organisational cultural dynamics so that the Program materials would resonate with the lived experience of employees. This diagnostic stage identified both the situational and social forces that were at play within the organisation that gave rise to its ethical issues. This initial cultural “gap analysis” between the formal and informal cultures, enabled us to recommend appropriate initiatives and levers, at both the individual and the institutional level, to bring about change.

The diagnostic methodology included filed research interviews with a selection of executives and line managers, focus groups in the corporate and field environments and a review of policies and protocols. After the field research, a matrix of five key topic areas was developed to cover the major ethical risks that were incorporated into the ethics training program including:

  • The multiple risk issues arising for the organisation in terms of behaviour standards as a result of people using their personal values rather than the organisation’s values and Code of ethics to guide their behaviour and choices. Such individualism can call into question values around customer commitment, sustainable outcomes, accountability and responsibility.
  • Discrimination issues arising from family relationships and loyalty to mates and the potential conflicts of interest created and failure to practice the value of respect.
  • Integrity, responsibility and accountability issues arising from secondary employment issues and volunteering activities on company time. Fraud and the threat of increased fraud issues may also arise from these practices.
  • Managerial inconsistency in role modelling of the values and implementation of policies such as data base management thwarting the organisation’s ability to uphold the values of management by fact, integrity, accountability and responsibility.
  • Failure to canvass others’ perceptions in deciding the rightthing to do, leaving the organisation vulnerable to changing public perceptions of what is appropriate behaviour and calling into question commitment to the values of safety, sustainable outcomes, customer commitment and enterprising spirit.


The Program contents were therefore designed to address these dynamics by educating and training employees in identifying and understanding the ethical imperatives behind existing organisational policies and procedures (why), heightening individual awareness of personal ethical accountabilities (learning), and skilling participants in ethical problem solving to encourage improved ethical decision making in the future (behaviour change). The Program design and ethics training resources were informed by academic research on bounded ethicality, which suggests that individuals can behave unethically, remain unaware of this, and also fail to notice the unethical behaviour that is occurring around them in what has been described as unintentional unethical behaviour.

These issues were then developed into ‘cinema verite’ dramas using professional actors and filmed into six-minute DVD vignettes that were multilayered with issues. Consistent with our behavioral approach to workplace ethics, the vignettes focused on workplace ethical issues in terms of choices and consequences: the behaviour choices available to employees and the consequences for the individual and for the organisation of different actions that may be taken. These filmed scenarios (fictional stories based on real incidents) were the cornerstones of the ethics program, which used a cascading model for roll out purposes.

All employees were required to attend ethics training sessions but the managers and operations managers were required to hold two separate sessions per year with their direct reports. Importantly, all managers were trained to be facilitators of their people’s learning rather than simply telling them what to do and each scenario was supported by a facilitator’s guide that drew attention to the main issues, provided tools such as discussion sheets, summaries of the scenarios, decision making models, an ethical decision making wheel, and the Code of Ethics, which was re-written for incorporation into the program. An eLearning tool was also written incorporating material from the DVDs for those staff who couldn’t attend face-to-face and also for induction training.

Program Evaluation


The effectiveness of the Program was evaluated in three different participant contexts: semi-structured interviews with six managers, four focus group discussions with employees from different sections, and via a quantitative survey of large sample of employees. This approach allowed us to capture a range of views and provide some validity and reliability to the responses via data triangulation. In each context, participants responded to similar questions about their attitudes towards the Program and its effectiveness. Questions included items such as we hold people accountable for ethical breaches and I would not feel comfortable to speak up about an ethical concern with a workmate’s behaviour. Survey participants responded to each item by indicating their level of agreement from Strongly Disagree to Strongly Agree.

Outcome of the Evaluation – did the training work?


The aim of this paper was to report the case study results of a behavioral intervention program designed to improve knowledge and practice of workplace ethics in a large organization. Employees provided their evaluation of the Make the Right Choice program via semi-structured interviews, focus groups and an employee survey. The findings showed that employees evaluated the program generally favorably and strongly valued ethical behavior, accountability, and the processes for raising ethical concerns. In this sense, the behavioral program successfully developed employee’s appreciation of ethical issues in the workplace. Nevertheless, employees were less inclined to trust the company, which was reflected in their stronger discomfort with reporting ethical issues or breaches due to issues of confidentiality and retribution.

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