In theory, corporate ethics should be easy to master and to flawlessly execute. However, in the day-to-day realities of the modern business organization, it’s rarely that simple.
True Office Learning has seen this struggle as we’ve accumulated data from millions of users via our training courses through the years. When employees are presented with real-world scenarios on topics such as corruption, business courtesies, insider trading, diversity, and intellectual property, they don’t score as well as many executives and compliance professionals might hope they would.
Even if four of five employees are knowledgeable about an aspect of corporate ethics, there’s that fifth who isn’t—and that’s not great odds with so much at stake. Moreover, the ethical landscape is so complex that smart employees can get lost trying to figure out right from wrong.
A solution—for the C-suite and average employees alike—to this complexity can be found in training and awareness. When people better understand what they should be on the lookout for and how they should respond to an ethical dilemma, organizations benefit. That said, the commitment to corporate ethics needs to start at the top.
A Culture of Ethics
Many organizations establish codes of ethics and conduct they expect employees to follow. Undoubtedly, this strategy is important—it cements standards and philosophies that help people know what lines shouldn’t be crossed. However, writing a code and having leaders communicate that the company is “an ethical organization” doesn’t automatically create an ethical organization. That is, if the clarity of a company’s code, policies, and procedures isn’t pervasive across the organization, those standards will not have the desired effect.
Employees who enter into or already exist within an organization bring their own personal values to work every day. Ethical decision-making tends to live between each employee’s personal values and corporate standards. The more a company creates and demonstrates constructs that increase awareness while discouraging wrongdoing, the greater the likelihood of a reduction in noncompliance events.
Take speed limit signs, for example. These signs are posted fairly frequently along roads so that every driver is aware of and periodically reminded of the speed limit. But even drivers with spotless records don’t always adhere to posted speed limits. Constructs have been created to demonstrate that there are consequences to breaking the speed limit. A good portion of the population will automatically heed speed limit signs because they inherently believe in doing the right thing. However, sometimes you need to station an empty police car along the road for the other part of the population—those who consciously choose to take the risk. That empty police car works to reduce occurrences of willful ignorance or bad actors. Acting with strong corporate ethics is possible when all employees know what’s right and expected of them every day they come to work, and when they are reminded periodically by leaders from managers all the way up to the C-suite.
To truly build an ethical company culture, remember that actions speak louder than words. Ethical organizations emphasize their commitment to standards in everything they do, from how customers are treated to how employees interact with each other to how everyday business roles are carried out. Leaders who demonstrate ethical behavior impact their employees and guide them toward similar choices. A 2018 study by the Ethics & Compliance Initiative found that when employees were encouraged to base decision-making on organizational standards and values, favorable ethics outcomes were 11 times more likely. Training, awareness, and reinforcement further integrates ethics into the company culture, thus boosting its importance beyond something that is just written down in a codified policy.
The Training Difference
Rank-and-file employees may see language in a code of conduct that doesn’t directly apply to them and choose to ignore the whole document—including the parts that might be individually pertinent. Great training overcomes this risk of irrelevance by testing users with real-life scenarios. Employees taking a course encounter familiar situations that require them to make ethical choices. Muscle memory builds, thus increasing the likelihood that when they face such a situation on the job, they’ll act ethically.
The challenge becomes implementing training that not only resonates with employees but also covers everything they need to know. Code of conduct training covers basic ethical concerns that employees generally understand and offers additional reinforcement of those basics. Deeper business practices training delves into areas such as conflicts of interest and money laundering that might not be as obvious to employees but still must be taught. Comprehensive third-party solutions offer a means to deliver this training to employees without bogging down HR and compliance professionals in the details of devising and implementing such courses.
Your company’s mission statement and philosophies—which may naturally emphasize a high commitment to corporate ethics—should be reflected and even incorporated into your training program. When employees see ethics emphasized in training and are challenged to apply those principles, organizations hammer the message home: This knowledge is important. Companies can customize content to fit their ethical mission, then follow up with microlearning and other resources for further reinforcement and to teach new concepts.
Set a Shining Example
Unfortunately, ethical lapses happen, even to the most diligent, compliance-focused organizations. Rather than run away from ethical miscues, use them as opportunities (as much as advisedly possible; there naturally might be legal limits to transparency). Owning up to mistakes is a way to recommit to ethical principles and develop a stronger path toward smart choices.
Business leaders who act ethically in everything they do—including during an ethical crisis—set a great example for employees. Quality training provides more guidance for good behavior. The end result is organizations and their employees doing the right thing not just because it’s compliant, but also because it is the right thing to do.