Why ethics training doesn’t work

We should be focusing on advancing learning, transformation and wisdom, not catching ‘bad’ people

I heartily support the call by Mark Connolly and Mark DiSalvo to stop the ethical merry-go-round so evident across all our sectors (‘Stop the unethical merry-go-round,’ Dec. 27-Jan. 9 NHBR). The unrelenting scandals are a sad testimony to the most important and powerful institutions in our country, notably business and government.

As a former ethics professor who has taught many MBAs and developed a course, Ethics Across the Professions, I can attest to the fact that ethics training as currently delivered does not have much impact on participants. In the interests of brevity I cite a few observations:

 • Most ethics training is heavily based on the stories, dilemmas or actions of other people, and minimal emphasis is placed on the moral dilemmas the students or the professionals are personally facing. As a result, discussions are an abstraction. People seem more interested in how and why people were caught than in the real-life emotional wrestling that results in misconduct.

The ability to empathize with recalcitrants and to look deeply into themselves and admit “but for the grace of God there go I,” is rarely demonstrated.

 • Online ethics tools are a travesty. How can one take these seriously? Selecting the supposed correct answer from a list of multiple alternatives hardly teaches anyone about ethical deliberation, judgment and moral reasoning. The heart of ethics is deliberation and judgment, not ticking boxes. Yet online tools is how we train many of our professionals!

 • Most MBAs have their sights on gargantuan salaries and huge share options. Any discussion regarding excess CEO pay, for example, even when the company has clearly lost significant market value over a sustained period, is typically shrugged off with, “Well whatever is legal is OK.”

 • Some of the case studies I have presented regarding the financial fallout and the granting of inappropriate mortgages to irresponsible or naive citizens invariably ends with a clear injunction from both MBAs and professionals that “buyer beware” and that the professional has no responsibility other than disclosure of risks. The notion of “I am my brother’s keeper” is not something most MBAs or business professionals buy into.

 • Most organizations have reward systems that emphasize financial performance. There are few checks and balances regarding their impact, particularly on indirect stakeholders such as foreign supply chain employees, labor standards or the environment. Ethics research shows that rewards systems have a major impact on behavior.

A good society has good institutions. Our unethical institutions and the rampant corruption that appears everywhere is thus a reflection on us. Connolly and DiSalvo mention instilling a sense of citizenship and personal responsibility across society. I could not agree more. I would like to propose a somewhat different approach to education:

 • Ethics education is carried out at the workplace. Forget the classroom.

 • The program includes working with the organization’s own decisions – a detailed audit of significant decisions made by the organization each year.

 • The program is carried out once or twice annually. It is overseen by a random group across the organization, several representatives from key stakeholder groups and one or two members from the community at large. Lawyers and accountants should be excluded, as they have a tendency to focus on rationalizing the rules or the law.

 • The decision audit should be written up and presented in a transparency report attached to the annual financial statements and posted on the organization’s website.

 • The conclusion of the report should include a discussion of lessons learned as a good corporate citizen. This should be followed by remedial action, if any required.

 • A synopsis should be presented at an organization town meeting and, for a public company, at a selected shareholder meeting.

The entire spirit of ethics education needs to be one of advancing learning, transformation and wisdom, not catching “bad” people. Creating this atmosphere will be important.

Annabel Beerel, president and CEO of the New England Women’s Leadership Institute, is the author of “Business Ethics: A Manager’s Guide to Being a Responsible Corporate Citizen.” She can be reached at abeerel@comcast.net.

Categories: Opinion