Should Employers Teach Ethics?

Should Employers Teach Ethics?

Callum James BA BEd MA CTDP


It is a nightmare scenario.

You have an employee, or worse still, multiple employees charged with a crime or publicly accused of unethical behaviour. For organizations, such as banks, brokerages, or accounting and insurance firms, losing credibility publicly can dramatically impact the bottom line—even before any regulatory penalties.

Whenever there is a scandal, the question of the need for a firm-mandated course on ethics inevitably surfaces. I am an educator and an eternal optimist, but I am pragmatic enough to ask: “What does the research say about the effectiveness of ethics courses?”

Despite an abundance of industry and firm-mandated ethics courses, there is surprisingly little research on their effectiveness. Most of the research on ethics courses that does exist is limited to business schools rather than workplaces. The best summary of the research I found was an article entitled, “Can ethics be taught?” from the 2011 International Journal of Business and Social Science.[1]

Some experts argue that morals cannot be taught, at least not to adults. They suggest that by the time an individual reaches adulthood, his or her moral character has already been fully developed. Each person’s decisions are more likely to be influenced by prior personal experiences and religious and societal beliefs than by a code of ethics at the workplace.

However, other experts believe there is high value in teaching ethics to adults, since it:

  1. Signals that the ethical component of decision-making is a priority for an organization.
  2. Allows individuals to compare their personal beliefs with the organization’s code.
  3. Encourages an environment where individuals are able to discuss ethical issues.
  4. Can provide a context for making ethical decisions (e.g., scenario examples).

How common are ethics courses? One study found that over 90% of business schools offer some form of ethics training.[2] Most business school deans stated that instructing future business leaders in ethical decision-making was one of the most important roles of a business school.[3] The good news is that experts who studied the attitudes of students taking ethics courses noted a general improvement in attitudes toward ethical approaches.[4] The bad news is the effects were short-lived.[5]

So, if teaching ethics as a standalone topic cannot be proven to result in a lasting change in student or employee behaviour, why bother?

Experts suggest that the best reason to teach ethics is not to broadcast moral standards, but rather to provide learners with the tools for moral reasoning.[6] In other words, once learners receive the what (i.e., a code of ethics), they need to learn how to apply that information.

If you are a stickler for research process, you should probably close your eyes as we make a giant leap from the classroom to the workplace. Here is my interpretation of the implications of the research for the workplace, tempered by my experience delivering ethics training for almost twenty years.

Think long and hard before adopting a company-specific code of ethics. Is your management prepared for a perpetual, company-wide effort to ensure your code permeates every aspect of your company’s decision-making? Adopting a code is easy; creating a change in corporate culture is much harder.

Also, do you employ professionals such as engineers, lawyers, or accountants who belong to a professional college or association? They may already be bound by a professional code that will supersede anything your company adopts.

Before aiming for the highest moral standards, have you made sure that you have trained employees on their minimum requirements (i.e., their legal obligations)?

Establish concrete, measurable objectives. It is unreasonable to expect that by introducing a single ethics course, that your company will see a measurable reduction in risk. It fails to account for the competing influences of employee motivation and entrenched corporate culture. Instead, aim for something more measurable, such as:

  • An improvement in the awareness of ethical issues related to roles;
  • An increase in moral reasoning abilities; and
  • Experience discussing ethical issues in the workplace.

Make sure your ethics course focuses as much on developing decision-making skills as on communicating your code of ethics. Ethics training to be effective should focus at least as much on the how as the what.

Decide whether your ethics training will be standalone, embedded, or both.

a.   Standalone course—some experts believe that by setting ethics as a standalone ethics course it sends a powerful message that the topic is a high organizational priority. It can also be an opportunity to explain key ethical principles without getting bogged down in the details of their application.

b.   Embedded content—other experts believe that for ethics training to be relevant and effective, one should embed the content in all company-wide training. It should replicate the types of ethical dilemmas employees will encounter on the job, for example, the same way that employees are asked to consider the economic implications of their decisions.

Until recently the embedded approach was reserved for the largest firms with training departments. However, affordable access to learning management systems and self-publishing tools means that, with a little outside help, even mid-sized firms can deliver their own relevant ethics training.

Ideally, training should be delivered by leaders from within the company, as opposed to outside experts. This is only practical to the extent that leaders are knowledgeable about ethical issues and that they are committed to the process. It may require special leadership programs to prepare leaders to deliver such instruction.

In conclusion, employers looking for a magical cure for poor behaviour won’t find it in a single ethics course. However, for firms prepared to make ethics training part of an organized company-wide effort, ethics training is a powerful tool that can help employees navigate ethical dilemmas.

[1] Ryan, T.G., & Bisson, J. (2011). Can ethics be taught? International Journal of Business and Social Science, 2(12),44-52.

[2] Stark, Andrew. What’s the Matter with Business Ethics? Harvard Business Review, Jan. & Feb. 1993, 38.

[3] Martell, K. (2007). Assessing Student Learning: Are Business Schools Making the Grade? Journal of Education for Business 82(4), 189-196.

[4] Weber, J. (1990). Measuring the impact of teaching ethics to future managers: A review, assessment, and recommendations. Journal of Business Ethics, 9, 183-190.

[5] Stephens, V.R., & Stephens, A. S. (2008). An examination of accounting majors’ ethical decisions before and after an ethics course requirement. Journal of College Teaching & Learning, 5 (4) 49-55.

[6] Cragg, W. (1997). Teaching business ethics: The role of ethics in business and in business education. Journal of Business Ethics, 16, 231-245

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