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How to develop effective ethics training for employees

82% of professionals say they'd take a lower-paying job to work for an organization with more ethical business practices. This is just one of the reasons to offer ethics training for employees.
ethics training for employees
Credit: Elena Poritskaya; phonlamaiphoto / Adobe Stock

One major lesson many leaders learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and the growing emphasis on social responsibility is that organizations survive and thrive when they do right by each other. Also, what’s legal and what’s right or ethical, aren’t necessarily the same. 

A number of recent studies have found that consumers are paying more attention to the practices of the companies they do business with. They’re less likely to buy from brands they believe are unethical, and more likely to consider organizational values in their purchasing decisions. These are just a few reasons to consider developing ethics training for employees.

The advantages of ethics training for employees and organizations 

Ethics is all about making integrity-based decisions — decisions that are grounded in closely-held values. 

According to Christopher Adkins, executive director of the Notre Dame Deloitte Center for Ethical Leadership, “Simply knowing the rules and how to call the ethics helpline does not necessarily mean employees will raise their voice when they see ethical issues in the workplace.”

Simply knowing the rules and how to call the ethics helpline does not necessarily mean employees will raise their voice when they see ethical issues in the workplace.

Christopher Adkins

In other words, organizations that establish a code of conduct but fail to provide ethics training are unlikely to see much behavioral change. Simply reading the code, without the opportunity to delve deeper into how it applies to their work, won’t do much to build a culture of integrity. 

This is why it’s beneficial to provide ethics training for employees. Its advantages can include:

  • Trust and enhanced teamwork among employees  
  • A stronger, organization-wide sense of responsibility for dealing fairly with customers, suppliers, and service providers 
  • A positive organizational culture with enhanced employee morale
  • Loyalty from consumers who value and reward ethical business practices
  • A better brand reputation and the avoidance of costly scandals or litigation 

There is a very real financial impact that unethical behavior can have on an organization. It’s been reported that more than half of the largest corporate bankruptcies were the result of unethical business practices. 

Additionally, having a reputation for unethical business practices can hurt an organization’s ability to attract and retain talent. A 2019 Glassdoor survey showed ethics matters more than salary to many job seekers, with 82% of professionals stating they would take a lower-paying job to work for an organization with more ethical business practices. 

Discover how a culture of learning can prepare your workforce for the future.

Developing ethics training for employees

Organizational ethics involves making individual and group decisions within the boundaries of organizational values and guidelines. Many organizations have developed a “code of conduct” to help translate their values into standards that guide behavior. Some also operate within the larger context of a legal and regulatory framework, such as those provided by HIPAA, OSHA, or the SEC. 

A code of conduct may address such concerns as:

  • Treating coworkers, customers, and the public with respect
  • Appropriate use and protection of confidential, proprietary, or personal information
  • The giving and receiving of gifts to or from customers, suppliers, etc.
  • Employment practices
  • Permitted use of company assets
  • Avoiding conflicts of interest
  • Compliance with applicable laws and regulatory requirements

Internally, a code of conduct guides day-to-day decision-making, while telling the rest of the world something about what the organization stands for. But even with a code of conduct in place, it’s not always easy to know the right thing to do in any given circumstance. That’s why it’s important to provide ethics training for employees at all levels, to help them develop the capacity to assess a situation and act with integrity.

Ethics training typically covers the following topics:

  • The organization’s code of conduct and cultural values
  • Common ethical dilemmas
  • The ethics of customer relations
  • Diversity training topics
  • Data privacy and protection 
  • Regulatory and compliance requirements
  • Ethical employment practices

Ethics training best practices

Employees at all levels of an organization can benefit from ethics training, but ethics must be fostered by leaders first and foremost. Ethics training can help leaders become more open-minded and receptive to employees’ concerns. It can also train them to: 

  • Lead in such a way that engenders trust and models accountability
  • Help employees see the connection between ethics and the work they do
  • Foster a culture of integrity and ethical conduct
  • Communicate the company’s values
  • Notice the signs of a toxic workplace, such as bullying and harassment  

However, these topics should not be exclusive to the C-suite. Leaders at all levels of an organization should model ethical behaviors and help foster the mindsets that bring about cultural change. 

There should never be negative consequences for shining light on ethical issues or questioning business practices that could cause harm.

SHRM has identified three requirements for ethical decision-making: “the ability to recognize ethical issues and to think through the consequences of alternative resolution, self-confidence to seek out different points of view and then decide what’s right at a given time and place in a particular relationship and circumstances, and tough-mindedness to willingly make decisions when all that needs to be known can’t be known and when the questions that press for answers have no established and incontrovertible solutions.” 

Effective training helps learners strengthen these skills in role play scenarios, case studies, and discussion groups. For example, employees might engage in role plays around situations such as:

  • An employee witnesses another bullying, while other witnesses do nothing to intervene
  • An employee notices a coworker plays video games on their cell phone at work
  • An employee discovers that a coworker is misappropriating the organization’s funds

The objective in any of these role plays is to learn how to interact appropriately with the employee who has exhibited concerning behavior. Adkins says, “Ethics training needs to move beyond rules and analysis and become more social and experiential, tapping into individuals’ past experiences and providing social models that they can emulate.” 

Ethics training needs to move beyond rules and analysis and become more social and experiential.

Christopher Adkins

Ethics training requires the actual practice of ethical decision-making. In another activity, employees in small groups can brainstorm a list of the organization’s most common ethical dilemmas, then choose one to discuss. Employees examine the dilemma from a variety of perspectives and share ideas for addressing it effectively.

It’s also important to recognize that although offering a one-time ethics training program is better than nothing, it’s insufficient for building a culture of integrity. Ethics training should be ongoing and can take place through a variety of modalities. 

Final note

When designing ethics training for employees, one message that should be built in is that it’s always okay to do the right thing. There should never be negative consequences for shining light on ethical issues or questioning business practices that could cause harm to internal or external parties. When this message is conveyed and truly felt throughout the organization, choosing what’s right over what’s simply convenient or profitable becomes the norm. 

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