How to Make Ethics Training Stick

Training on ethics is important, but how can you make sure it has an impact? Step one, according to one study: Get the exec in the room.

Ethics matters. On this, everybody agrees. The CEO will tell you that. The ethics seminar leader will tell you that. Even the staffer who was catching up on email while half-listening to that last ethics webinar everybody had to watch will tell you that.

Recognizing the importance of ethics is one thing. But getting people to actively engage with the issues that workplace ethics presents is another. That’s the message of a recent report from the Ethics & Compliance Initiative, an association of professionals in the field. The study, titled “Ethics & Compliance Training: What Gets Results,” was based on responses of both trainers and employees who received training, and it includes a few revealing data points:

  • 82 percent of employees say that training is relevant to their job, but only 48 percent say they apply it to their job.
  • 69 percent of trainers say their most important objectives are changing ethics-related behavior and preventing future misconduct, but a majority (56 percent) say they’re most successful at training on more mundane matters of sharing legal and policy information, and satisfying regulatory requirements.
  • Having the senior leaders visible during the training makes a big difference. For instance, while only 43 percent of participants say they “learned something new” when the boss wasn’t around, the number spikes to 59 percent when the boss is visible. (They’re also much less likely to multitask when the boss is around.)

So the study reveals something of the ongoing struggle with ethics training—employees recognize that it’s important, but it has a hard time becoming part of the lifeblood of an organization beyond employee-handbook reminders. But all is not lost, ECI CEO Dr. Patricia J. Harned, told me. Leaders in particular can do a lot to encourage employees to talk about ethics, especially if it’s done in conversational, decision-making context.

When leaders participate in training, “it sends a big message about integrity and ethical conduct.”

When employees see their leaders manage in a crisis and discuss it, she says, “it sends a big message about integrity and ethical conduct.” And when the leader shows up for training, “they perceive the leader thinks the policies and regulations of the organization are important…. And they get a sense from their senior executive that the training is important too.”

That can help employees sit up a little straighter during the training sessions. But Harned says that the training is most effective when leaders make a point of referring back to the lessons learned from it. “Whether it’s related to strategy or employment decisions—really, any kind of decision—if they take a minute and also explain how they arrived at the decision they made, and tie it back to the values of the organization and maybe some of the key concepts that came up in the training, it’s a really easy way in everyday conversation to make that training live on,” she says.

In-person training is more effective than virtual methods like self-directed video training or webinars, according to the ECI study. For instance, 63 percent who had in-person training say it often or sometimes directly applied to their job, compared to just 41 percent among those who did their training virtually. Dr. Harned cautions that this doesn’t mean virtual training isn’t worth it—for one thing, those methods make it easier to organizations to tailor the training for employees’ specific needs. “Not every employee need to be trained on what bid-rigging is, or what a conflict of interest is, because they’re not necessarily exposed to those kind of situations,” she says.

But that training becomes more memorable and meaningful, she says, when it’s integrated into ongoing discussions in the office, especially when it comes to the kind of decisions that have an ethical element. “If they engage in a conversation about issues that come up, those are the things that begin to help employees think, ‘My manager really cares about us doing our work with integrity.’”

How does your organization handle ethics and compliance training, and how do you keep the conversation going about ethics on a regular basis? Share your experiences in the comments.

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Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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