Despite the millions spent on ethics and compliance training programs, they have largely failed to protect valued brand names of our organisations here in Australia and across the globe.  Isn’t it time to radically rethink our existing approach to business ethics training and move away from a focus on instructing employees on what they can’t do?

Behaviour Science shows us that most people already know the right thing to do but are unable to translate their good intentions into actions.  Personal biases, organisational contextual pressures and a lack of social skills, leaves employees vulnerable to ethical fading and ethical blindness.

Today, regulators know where most of the ethical risks lie in business, so the outstanding challenge for leaders and risk managers is to design better workplace environments to enable employees to be forewarned and forearmed to the ethical challenges they will inevitably face.

Challenging existing mindsets is a necessary precursor to individual and organisational behaviour change.  We can easily observe how people are changing their behaviour all the time especially in response to new technologies. Science tells us that one of the main tasks of our brains is to help us adjust our behaviour when our environment or contexts change.  Let’s leverage this natural disposition to behaviour change and equip employees with the necessary social skills to recognise when they are bumping up against ethical norms of acceptable behaviour standards.

Although organisations talk a lot about ethics and compliance training, typically training initiatives are not designed by social scientists with training in human dynamics.  Instead, content is shaped by compliance professionals within a legal perspective.  The unintended consequence of this is that a lot of ethics initiatives fail to engage employees who see themselves as inherently ethical people. They dismiss such training as not relevant to them.

If then, the typical employees’ sense of self-identity is that of an ethical person, we need to build ethics initiatives from this perspective.  We can engage participants by demonstrating how honing better ethical decision-making skills will assist them to protect their self-image as being an ethical person.

Codes of Conduct have similarly failed to protect organisational reputations. They fail because they do not speak to the actual behaviour promoted or tolerated in the organisation.  Instead, they reflect legal obligations rather than ethical behaviour principles that enable employee’s engagement and commitment to shared standards of behaviour.  Codes of Conduct, like the Three Lines of Defence initiatives, fail because there is no social infrastructure to embed them in the reality of the day to day life of the organisation and its industry.

Harnessing personal motivations to organisational needs requires appropriate social infrastructure.  It is the quality of the organisation’s social context that enables desired behaviour patterns to emerge. Culture is a set of social relationships and, for these to flourish, requires initiatives designed to build consistency in perceptions, attitudes and social skills. It  begins with a focus on employees’ social needs such as a personal understanding of the social dynamics of who, why, how, when and where,  as it plays out in this organisation and its relationship to its external stakeholders.

Every employee wants to be successful so let’s start here and purposely nurture a living organisational social fabric enabling human flourishing.  It will also lead to effective risk management.

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