I had a recent encounter with corporate ethics training that left a sour taste in my mouth. Every employee had to stop whatever they were doing to go through this training. Instead of doing something that adds value to the business, they spent their time mindlessly clicking ‘next’ without even reading the tutorial in order to get it done. The tutorial itself was a slickly produced interactive cartoon. I’m sure a few people spent a great deal of time coming up the the script, and doing all the animation. In the end nothing was really learned, a lot of time was wasted, and a good deal of money was spent. The entire process ultimately proved to be a massive waste.
But the most frustrating thing was the implication behind the training. From what I was able to gather, the company was claiming to be ethical because it did things like hold ethics training with their employees. I think that’s fundamentally wrong, and highly misleading.
The reason companies hold ethics training is to limit their liability in cases where an employee does something blatantly illegal. If such an event occurs, they are able to make the argument that they did their best in telling their employees the law, but they hired a bad apple. In other words, any illegal actions performed were the fault of an individual, and not something systematic. But ethics is way more than just following regulations and laws.
From the moment we are born we are constantly taught right from wrong. A few of these concepts of morality have even been codified into law, which is what these ‘ethics trainings’ cover. But there is still an entire spectrum of unethical behavior that is still legal, and sadly, widely practiced. Does the company treat their employees fairly? Does a company always do right by their customers? Does a company strive to compete on an even playfield? Does a company give back to the community they are a part of? Is the company a good steward of the environment?
Ethics training is silent on these matters. But the answers to these questions are precisely what separates ethical companies from the rest. Companies can’t just conduct an annual ethics training and hope an ethical culture magically manifests itself as a result. Being an ethical company takes leadership from all levels. It involves each employee making sure that they always strive to do the right thing, especially when an easier and more expedient but unethical option is available. This is a much more difficult prospect, and as a result there are far too few companies that are actually ethical.
Many companies don’t really care about ethics as long as they are making money and not breaking the law. However, if a company is truly striving to be ethical, there are things they can do instead of mandating ethics training. As an alternative, it would be much more effective for companies to conduct ethics brainstorming sessions, with every employee participating. Each person at the company can really look at how they are operating both at an individual and collective level. This would allow people and the company as a whole to figure out what they are doing right, where they are falling short, and come up with goals to do better in the future. I think it’s really important that companies operate in an ethical way, and hope that there are more ethics brainstorming sessions, and less ethics training sessions in the future.