Ethics training: Six actions towards a successful ethics program

In some articles of the Project Post-Gazette (PPG) we have talked about the importance of the Compliance and Ethics (C&E) program within your organization. This article is going to talk about six actions towards a successful ethics training program. The Line in the Sand article in this month’s PPG discusses the different courses your C&E program should provide for your employees.

Ethics & Code of Conduct training is an effective way to improve employee awareness of your organization’s key values. The goal of your ethics training within your organization is not to teach morality, each employee needs to bring that characteristic with them, but it is going to help teach employees the organization’s position on doing the right thing when faced with moral challenges. The “tone at the top” within organization will set the bar for each organization’s profile in this area. Employees are going to take the lead from their senior management when facing such decisions. It is the organization’s responsibility, to structure their ethics training whereby employees should clarify both their own expectations and the expectations of the organization within the framework of the individual’s moral compass.

If an organization does not have the tone set for a strong ethical culture this is more than likely because there has been little thought put into the ethics training within that organization. It is also true that if senior management does not encourage and show ethical leadership, it is more than likely that the employees will not make this a priority while working at that organization. Employees truly do take the lead from senior management when it comes to the ethical culture.

So it is important to prepare your employees to deal with ethical problems and moral dilemmas that they will encounter within the workplace. The ethics training should set the tone for practical understanding to employees of the ethical issues they might face.

Below are six suggested actions for your ethics training:


Action 1: Provide ethical discussions.

Encourage your employees to use critical thinking skills effectively to help them determine the consistency of their actions with those of the organization. Of course the first step would be for the organization to ensure their values have been well communicated. This cannot be done by merely requiring each employee to watch a video on ethics each year.   This type of training can be done with some interaction between the employee and their manager with discussions about common ethical values between these different perspectives. Workshops can facilitate common threads to discover these core values. Mini training snippets which shows situations where employees find themselves in an ethical dilemma can be viewed with a follow-on discussion between the employee and their manager. Managers can provide their employees with some critical thinking strategies for approaching ethical situations. Employees can be asked to describe an ethical dilemma that they have experienced or witnessed and enter into discussions on different ethical alternatives that they could have taken.

Action 2: Provide ethical training in job specific areas.

One training video on ethics is too broad brush and does not include ethical issues and dilemmas that are particular to employees in different job specific areas. The employees within the procurement department will face an entirely different set of challenges that employees within the human resources department. The employees within the procurement department are faced with purchasing decisions and could be faced with challenges surrounding fraudulent purchasing. The employees within the human resources department encounter unique challenges during the new employee hiring process. Also, many times human resource employees face ethical dilemmas about being honest with employees given the information to which they have access. Ethics training can include specific modules for each department that will touch upon the ethical dilemmas these particular employees will face.

Action 3: Provide ethical expectations and requirements.

Expectations about employee’s ethical behavior should be written within the employee handbooks and in the company’s code of conduct and should be communicated to each employee. To ensure employees are engaged in understanding the organization’s expectations, the code of conduct should not be written that employees do not understand it but it should be written in plain English with specific examples of what is describing. An example is when the code of conduct talks about sexual harassment, examples could include the sexual harassment an employee encounters by being asked for sex by their manager or harassment can be in the form of overt request for sex in return for favors such as the promotion or raise. Harassment can also include telling off-color jokes, displaying offensive pictures, or inappropriate touching. Employees should have an opportunity to talk about these examples and ask questions.

Action 4: Provide employees the chance to discuss their own ethical perspectives.

Many employees come from a variety of backgrounds and cultures including different perspectives on what is right or wrong based on their culture. Employees’ backgrounds and culture will affect their ethical behavior, the personality traits, and the resulting actions. One example is if you have a Machiavellian personality type, they have a natural tendency to believe that any means justifies the end they seek. This type of personality does not see a problem with lying and manipulating others. Communicating to employees the organization’s ethical culture will help ensure employees know their expectations.

Action 5: Understand cognitive biasing.

Employees are humans and carry with them biases based on their upbringing. Not every ethical situation is clear-cut. For instance a male boss may perceive all females to be emotional or a female employee may perceive that all males too objective. These cognitive biases could come into play when a manager is assessing an unethical behavior of an employee. A project manager that lies to the sponsor because in their mind they are protecting the sponsor from bad information that they feel will turn around, could be viewed by their manager as a good project manager or an unethical project manager depending on their personal bias. Many times attributes such as race, ethnicity or gender are brought into the mix when trying to explain the actions of an employee. Ethics training should include discussions on all types of situations to allow employees to realistically explore how unethical behavior can hide behind individual biases.

Action 6: Ensure the message is communicated clearly and often.

Expecting an ethical culture within your organization when employees only read the code of conduct once a year without incorporating several of these components discussed in this article will not give your organization positive results. The culture of ethics with an organization can be communicated through posters on bulletin boards, email messages, discussions at team meetings, one-on-one discussions with managers, and in my opinion one of the most part is by senior leadership walking the walk.

In order for organizations to have success in incorporating core ethical values among their employees, and in return see positive results in their ethics training, organizations need to provide more than a mediocre training environment. Simply telling employees to do the right thing is just not going to work. I hope you find yourself working for organization that values a strong ethics program; but if you do not, perhaps you can relate to them some of what you have taken away from this article.


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