Some of you will be starting to build your business plan for next year and if ethics falls within your sphere of influence, then one of the items you will be weighing up is some form of ethics training. It’s a sticky issue: some within your firm will question whether you can actually teach employees to be better people. And to a large extent, they’re right, but what they’ve missing is the point of ethics training. So what’s the point of ethics training? …and what makes it work?
What’s important to remember is that most misconduct in corporate settings is not done by bad people doing bad things, but by good people making bad choices. Those bad choices are usually made when employees are under a lot of pressure at work: to hit targets, to avoid big problems and the like. And what good people often turn to when making those bad choices are self serving rationalisations to try to justify their actions: for example, the denial of loss (“no one is really going to lose out”), the claim to entitlement (“I’ve worked hard on this deal; I deserve to win it”) and what Warren Buffet has described as the five most dangerous words in business, “everyone else is doing it”.
So your ethics training should address these rationalisations, helping people recognise them for what they are and identifying techniques to adopt so that they can be avoided next time round.
Gathering people together to talk about things like rationalisations leads to a very important by-product: people are encouraged to talk about ethics. That doesn’t often happen in business settings: when was the last time you heard of a meeting in which ordinary employees raised an ethical issue? The results can be surprising: people raise questions about practises you didn’t know were happening; differences of opinions emerge and are weighed up (for example about ‘fairness’), and; people feel empowered to talk about personal values that influence their work.
Talking about ethics allows people to voice their values and listen to those of their colleagues. It’s a vital step towards people using those values to make better choices, even when under pressure to do otherwise. And it makes it more likely that they will speak up when they see misconduct at work. A useful step forward, given the Financial Conduct Authority’s heightened interest in whistleblowing.
You may think that greater discussion about ethical things will just end up in lots of arguments. And it might, but that points you towards the third leg upon which ethics training should stand. Start people out early on with some techniques in critical thinking. This shows them how to weigh up the various strands of an argument in a clear, consistent and inherently sound manner. It helps make the right decision clearer.
Now, I’m not wanting you to put that in-depth training course on conflicts of interest or privacy on the back burner. What I am suggesting is that those quite specific ‘ethical topic’ courses will prove more effective if they also incorporate elements of what I’ve outlined above here: how to recognise and avoid bad choices, giving voice to values, and some critical thinking.