Nine Steps to Make Your Company’s Ethics Training Program Stick

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It’s not easy to embed business ethics throughout an organization, because it’s not always easy to define the “right thing to do” – especially when different people define “right and wrong” in different ways. To add to the problem, employees’ personal ethics usually don’t align perfectly with the business ethics of a company.

But those complexities are exactly why it’s so important for leaders to establish and enforce a code of conduct for the entire business. And fortunately, the benefits of building an ethics program largely outweigh the hurdles.

It’s true, many companies already include ethics training as a key component of the onboarding process for new employees, but ethics training is seldom offered on an ongoing basis – meaning employees can lose sight of an organization’s code of conduct along with the definition of the “right thing to do.” Because ethics training initiatives require funding and support, many companies offer a static program without updates, case studies, or examples of unethical situations.

A truly dynamic ethics training program should focus on embedding the company’s code of conduct into daily worklife. To build an ethics training program that sticks, use these nine guidelines to “make it work.”

1. Make it specific. Ethics programs should target specific behavior and should be reinforced by action. Case studies and clear examples of ethical breaches should be well-defined, and employees should be prompted to describe how they would handle the situation.

2. Make it a two-way conversation. Programs should include a process for asking questions and getting management to correct apparent weaknesses in procedures. Employees must be assured of confidentiality during training sessions to allow open discussions about ethical concerns.

3. Make it interactive. The most effective programs are interactive so employees can learn firsthand how to make better ethical decisions, and they often include a roadmap of the steps to follow when facing an unethical situation.

4. Make it memorable and situational. Many companies offer online training programs with quizzes to test the employees’ understanding, or ask employees to perform the behaviors described during training to better commit it to memory. In some cases, an employee is required to repeat the training if they do not do well on the quiz.

5. Make it relatable. Whether through case studies or interactive presentations, participants should be provided with examples of good and bad ethical behavior along with an understanding of the impacts of such behaviors. For example, I had an opportunity of working with MCI (formally WorldCom) as part of the internal controls team that was chartered to rebuild the company. Besides the usual ethics training programs and webinars, we wanted to implement an interactive training initiative so that employees had an opportunity to apply their understanding of ethics. It included an ethics board game where participants had opportunities to react to case studies and define next steps.

6. Reinforce it. In a live training environment, training instructors should review and positively reinforce behaviors learned by participants through consistent messaging. Observations from ethics training sessions should be shared with the company’s management team, including any trends or concerns.

7. Repeat it. Training program participants should experience the commitments associated with ethical behavior. This is a good test of one’s personal ethics and integrity, and reinforces the employee’s ability to adhere to the company’s code of conduct. Ongoing ethical training programs are critical, because ethical dilemmas are dynamic. Ethical dilemmas can range from suspected employee fraud, to potential financial statement fraud, to management coercion, or even to possible collusion with suppliers. To ensure employees are comprehensively trained, some companies offer training on a quarterly basis and require proof of attendance.

8. Make it visible. The general principles in codes of conduct should be an integral part of a company’s strategic planning process, with goals and metrics in place to ensure success. This commitment to ethics and the code of conduct must be communicated during training sessions and can be repeated during an employee’s performance review.

9. Enforce the ethics hotline. While a good training program can actually prevent calls to a company’s ethics hotline, the hotline should still be reinforced throughout all training initiatives. When employees are armed with the proper tools and can clearly define a violation of the code of conduct, they are in a better position to use the hotline to report the real ethical dilemma.

These nine steps will help embed the company’s code of conduct throughout the organization. The cost and commitment required for a dynamic ethics training program certainly outweigh the risk of ongoing unethical behavior and potential fraud. A well-implemented program should align an employee’s personal and professional ethics with the expected business ethics of his or her company. Using these steps will help set the right direction, but ethics training that sticks requires everyone’s commitment and attention – not just once, but throughout the year.

About the author:
Chris Doxey, CAPP, CSA, CICA, CPC, is an author, management consultant, and member of the Institute of Management Accountants’ Committee on Ethics, Leadership Academy, and Research Foundation. She is executive director of the Institute of Finance Management’s Controller Certification Program, president of the Washington, D.C. area chapters of the Institute for Internal Controls (IIC) and Institute of Financial Operations, as well as a member of the Institute of Internal Auditors and member of the advisory board for the IIC.

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