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Why Online Ethics Training Fails

Businesses are spending more and more time and money on ethics training, but most of it is cosmetic and ineffective. What to do?

Most large companies today require ethics training at least annually. This ought to be good news: businesses are investing time and resources to put ethics on the agenda. And the training is becoming more convenient and accessible, too: smart people in management consulting companies have noticed this market and now offer a menu of customized online training programs for a princely fee.

Unfortunately, online ethics training is often cosmetic and ineffective.

Where is the evidence of behavioural change resulting from these programs? Just do a little sniffing around: ask the rank and file how they feel about these mandatory training modules. What did they learn? How did their attitudes change? How do they think their behaviours will change? Did they enjoy the lesson?

What is a faithful business leader to do?

The content problem

The first problem is with the content of these ethics training programs. The focus is too narrowly placed on decision-making in moral dilemma situations. Here is a scenario (maybe presented with first rate graphics). Here are five options. What are the wrong ways to respond? Pick the right answer from options a through e and advance the slide.

What would good ethics training look like? Perhaps it would show the links among decision-making strategies, action guidelines, cultural values, and the overall mission and vision of the organization. In its best, richest sense, ethics describes "how we need to treat each other" (and every party with a stake in our operations) in order to achieve our mission and vision with excellence and success. If training isolates ethical cases from that broader texture, it will drastically weaken employees' understanding of ethics.

The medium problem

The second problem is even more serious than the first. In online training, the educational process itself is irretrievably flawed because the medium overrides the message.

The first message goes like this: "Hey people—it's ethics time! Go sit by yourself in front of your computer." Almost unbelievably, at a time when we talk and write about "the wisdom of teams," the "power of we," and the role of diversity and collaboration in business, we still treat ethics as a Lone Ranger activity, a solo sport. If there is any aspect of business that requires teamwork, it is ethics—the search for the right thing. We need others to help us figure it out, and we need others to help us carry it out. Ethical discernment and execution rely on teamwork.

The subsidiary problem with the medium is its inextricably binary nature. No matter how ornate we make the choices, the trainee either picks the approved way forward to the next slide or doesn't. But, as we all know upon thirty seconds of reflection, real life ethics in the trenches isn't like that. Get a group together to discuss a problem and opinions will vary. Unexpected nuances and angles of vision appear. Some are ready to act now; others counsel buying some time or adopting a wait-and-see stance. New questions come up; there are demands for more research and information. These are not just the results of irrational, ignorant, obstinate colleagues (though that can be an ethical reality). Complexity, dynamism, and mystery are natural components of human organization and behaviour. They simply cannot be modeled by means of online training. They have to be experienced.

Better ways

I am sympathetic to the typical employee periodically pecking away at the ethics training module while really concentrating on something much more important and interesting. I believe there must be deeper, more effective ways to teach employees about ethics.

The first step is to fire the consulting and training firm and create your own ethics training (maybe hiring a helpful coach/consultant, but not employing the big one-size-fits-all types). Make sure your learning objectives are positive, and your approach is holistic as well as practical for your people.

Make training a group experience. Can you require two hours per year for a group training session involving small group discussion? Can you prepare discussion cases and modules that can be required, for example, in all departmental meeting agendas for thirty minutes at some point in the next two months? Whether it is in dedicated group training sessions or as modules feathered into existing group meeting agendas, this is Plan A Ethics training. (And, yes: Plan B can be an online replica for those who had to miss this year's face-to-face Plan A training, but that should be Plan B, not Plan A).

We need to get over the rationalism and individualism of Western moral philosophy and follow wiser cultural traditions, including that of the Bible. Remember that all significant biblical ethical teaching (e.g., the Decalogue, the Sermon on the Mount, Romans 12-13) was given to communities to discuss and carry out—never to isolated individual "moral athletes." "Wherever two are three are gathered" . . . "if two or three agree" . . . These expressions come up in the context of moral discernment and decision-making.

It is common sense as well as inspired revelation: ethics is a team thing. Until corporations understand the nature of ethics, their ethics training will continue to be a boring waste of time and money.

Help us spread the word:
David W. Gill David W. Gill
David W. Gill (Ph.D., USC) is on the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, Mass.). ... read more »

Posted in Business, Justice.

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