Without any doubt, the field of Ethics & Compliance (or Ethics Management) took shape in the second half of the 70s, when the US government introduced several legal measures concerning governmental ethics. The almost four decades spent in developing various tools, organisational programs and legal measures brought little change in the business sector, constantly eroded by scandals, crises and unethical leadership. This lack of effectiveness made a lot of people consider the whole field as still in its infancy. This ideas is also supported by the dominant legal approach to compliance, which blocked or made difficult the road towards an interdisciplinary field, by the relatively small number of academic publications and by insufficient number of professionals and researchers.
So, it should not be a surprise that there are a lot of myths concerning Ethics in professions and organisations in general and Ethics training in particular. In this brief note, I shall focus exclusively on those myths that concern Ethics training, only an element of what we commonly call ethics programs (U.S. terminology – see the U.S. Office of Government Ethics), ethics infrastructure (the OECD terminology), ethics framework (European terminology – see European Court of Auditors) or just Ethics & Compliance Management Systems (ECMS).
Myth 1.1. Ethics cannot be taught. Character is built by personal experience.
This is the most popular myth. The majority of learned people think that ethics is not something that can be transmitted through education, but something to be experienced. As Aristotle pointed out almost 2400 years ago, a man becomes virtuous by doing the right thing, by practicing virtue, not by listening to lectures about justice, courage or temperance. Nevertheless, the same ancient philosopher found an important role for moral education to play in character building. For example, he talked about the young people who are educated so as to develop a noble character. In other words, without a systematic approach to character building, it accidentally happens that someone has a noble character.
If we change the angle, ethics training and, in particular, character building programs represent a form of social interaction in itself. For instance, if you are going through a case study and discuss with your colleagues about the ethical implications of someone’s actions, this constitutes a social interaction, which, in turn, creates specific neural patterns related to the analysed situation. These neural patterns, activated several times through practice, will determine specific moral decisions of the individual. This is the formative role of the training: to make individuals think in a certain way, not let the irrational lead the way.
Myth 1.2. Making moral decisions is simple and anyone can do it and actually does it. There is no need for a training that teaches us Ethics.
The main presupposition of this myth is that ethics training is about making moral decisions. Actually, this type of training, aiming to develop the moral imagination, is the most complex one. In some rudimentary forms, the role of the ethics training programs is to inform about the existence of some organisational mechanisms meant to prevent unethical behaviour (the code of ethics, the ethics hotlines, the conflict of interest policy etc.). In others, more advanced forms, the role might be awareness-raising concerning the moral implications of unprofessional behaviour.
Moreover, a sharper distinction between unstructured (in the absence of any kind of moral education) and informed moral decision-making, which involves a moral imagination capable to see beyond mere facts and obvious implications, which may presuppose an heuristic method of decision-making and familiarity with the situation at hand and so on, should be drawn. Should you wish, you may translate this distinction in an example where someone acts morally correct by accident while another person does it so because he/she understands what is going on and chooses to do the right thing.
Third, making moral decisions is not synonymous with doing the right thing: someone could know what is the right thing to do and decides to do it, but does not act upon his/her decision. This applies particularly to weak characters, to those people who are unable to transpose their moral decisions into actions. An Ethics training may aim at making people aware of their own moral limitations. Some may postpone doing the right thing out of fear of retaliation. There are ethics trainings that address exactly this type of issue.
Myth 2. Ethics should be taught in schools, at home or in churches; definitely not to mature individuals, not in business organisations.
All over the world, people tend to support the idea that moral development stops when someone reaches adulthood. Recent discoveries in Moral Psychology made with the help of fMRI technology underline the fact that teenagers observe certain norms not because they have the capacity to do so, but out of conformity. The brain area that is responsible for observing moral principles – the frontal cortex – starts developing between the ages of 10 and 18 and not in the first 7 years of life. And its development never stops. In other words, adults are able to learn and assume moral norms throughout their entire life. Not engaging people in Ethics training throughout their life is like asking them to stop living.
Myth 3. Ethics training programs should be based mainly on negative case studies, if not exclusively, because only negative situations make a real impression on people.
The reality is that most regulations covering ethical aspects are the result of crises. For example, the Watergate scandal influenced the U.F. officials to adopt a law concerning ethics in public administration. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act was introduced in 1978 because of the multiple scandals involving American companies bribing public servants around the globe to facilitate market entry or to win contracts. Sarbanes-Oxley Act is the result of the work that covered the Enron scandal and a decade of white-collar crimes (Dot Com Bubble etc.). This is the most common way we learn, i.e., from our mistakes.
Secondly, we are more attracted to negative situations than to positive ones. While positive situations reflect a so-called state of normality, the negative ones are causing anger in us, thus extracting us from our comfort zone and making us act. Using negative examples may determine us to be more active during the training program, because we want to protest, we want to express our opinion. So, while it seems a good idea, in reality, using too many negative examples can stir people up to the extent of opposing such a dark, pessimistic approach.
A better solution is to balance the negative examples with the positive ones.
Myth 4.1. Ethics training can be taught by anyone, especially if he/she has a sound background in Law.
The assumption of this myth is not so uncommon: many people without structured knowledge in the field of ethics believe the only required skill is to be able to deliver training programs. Anyone can say why actions A1, A2 and B3 are not morally acceptable. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
Ethics, as a discipline, is not about what we think is morally correct or incorrect, about our opinions; it is about understanding the dynamics of human behaviour, about the mechanisms of moral action, about what communities consider ethical or unethical over long periods of time, about moral values, principles and norms. In consequence, the Ethics trainer needs to have strong background in various disciplines related to moral behaviour in general and in organisational settings.
Second issue: having expertise in Law is not mandatory, but it surely helps. For example, in order to guide his/her trainees through a case study, a professional Ethics trainer needs to have a clear perspective over legal aspects and implications as well. In many situations described in Business Ethics case studies, the immoral actions may also produce illegal consequences.
Third issue: having a strong background in Ethics and no training skills represents also an undesirable situation. Is like having a Ferrari with an unprofessional driver on the race track. Do you expect him/her to win the race with this unfortunate combination? It is the same with Ethics training programs delivered by an unprofessional trainer: do you expect him to convince people of the ethical implications of a specific behaviour?
Myth 4.2.1. The best Ethics trainers are philosophers. Ethics is a philosophical discipline.
There are naïve people who reason this way: Ethics is a philosophical discipline, therefore philosophers are the only people who can deliver good Ethics training programs. Leaving aside the fact that this type of reasoning is based on a fallacy, the basic idea that philosophers are particularly equipped for moral training is worth examining.
What makes philosophers so privileged in contrast with other people? First, it is their training: they spend a lot of time analysing, using critical thinking to explore human behaviour. They play with counterfactual arguments and use various types of research to understand moral behaviour. They study long forgotten ideas and try to find the tension points for new ones. This way, philosophers that go not only by name, but also by training, are able to analyse more in-depth the moral contexts people are faced with. This special ability is not developed by any other science or art.
Second, philosophers use theories that describe moral behaviour and try to make sense of a web of motivators in order to establish the responsibility of moral agents involved in a particular situation, real or fictional (in a case study, simulation etc.). These theories have shaped the intellectual history of human kind for centuries. Describing moral behaviour in terms of moral virtues is not something that sends us in a distant point in time, but rather, it relates directly to the way we talk today about responsibility in the professional sphere. The courage of a physician to perform bold interventions is not about Hippocrates or Galenus, but about that physician who refuses to give up simply because cancer is eating away his/her patient’s liver. The modern physician makes moral decisions in relation to his patients, decisions that reflect his/her character. The same goes for a business person that assumes a greater role in society and makes his/her investment count more for people than his own pockets, even in times of economic turbulences.
But not all philosophers are good at this type of ethical thinking, because not all of them specialize in Applied Ethics; many others go in different directions, like Philosophy of Science, Aesthetics, Neurosciences, the History of Philosophy etc. And not even all those that specialize in Applied Ethics make good trainers. They need to get out of their comfort zone, by combining research with practical life, i.e., direct contact with the field they are interested in.
Myth 4.2.2. Philosophers, academics in general, are good to “theoretical” Ethics, but they don’t know anything about the realities of the business sector or our organisation.
There are not only naïve people who favour philosophers; there are also extremists who reject philosophers and Philosophy as being “too theoretical”. These extremists blame philosophers for making Ethics too obscure, too cryptic, too difficult to be understood by professionals. Consequently, we ask professionals, especially those with a noble character, to implement the Ethics training programs. They have the legitimacy to talk about integrity, for example.
This is the reversed situation I described earlier, but it remains a fallacy. Of course, there are many Ethics trainers that are too far away from reality when they deliver training programs, but this does not mean all of them fall in this category.
Myth 5.1. Employees don’t take ethics training seriously. Especially, when the top management is unethical.
Ethics training effectiveness depends on many factors. The employees do not take it seriously when, for instance, there is no tone at the top. In other words, the leadership of the organisation is not interested in changing the way it conducts business. They also tend to treat it lightly when they witness directly the unethical behaviour of their peers.
The side story of this myth is that employees’ attention during the Ethics training and their involvement in case studies, simulations, role plays etc., depend mainly on the trainer, not on the managers’ unethical behaviour. This distinction between training effectiveness and training responsiveness should not be left aside because it actually helps us understand that in specific cases, like awareness Ethics training programs, effectiveness can be easily achieved because it is related to the limit of the trainees’ understanding, but responsiveness is an issue to be dealt with. In higher forms of Ethics training, responsiveness is also a key element: you need people to get involved in the training activities and this is the key role of the trainer, not of the top manager who sits in his Jaguar and does not care about the level of wages in his factory. But in training programs associated with change processes, responsiveness is just the basis for what comes after the training, with the way individuals choose to act in particular situations. In this case, role-models play a significant role.
Myth 5.2. The organisational environment is so toxic anyone opposing it gets pulled down. Ethics training does not help protect the employees.
Organisations with toxic cultures and climates are more likely to have Ethics training programs, because someone puts pressure on them, for example, but everything is blown away when people get back to their offices. They might show some interest in the chosen topics, but the Ethics training itself is irrelevant for the social arrangements at work in their organisations. A toxic manager will continue to harass his/her employees no matter how many hours of training he/she pays to a consultant.
This happens because a training program on ethical aspects is not aiming to protect employees, not because the trainer is not professional or because the company has a toxic culture, but because it does not have any means for doing that.
Myth 6. We already have a Code of Ethics/Code of Conduct and everyone can read it. There is no reason to also have an Ethics training addressing what the Code says.
Of course, anyone can read the Code of Ethics (CoE) or Code of Conduct (CoC), but understanding how it should be applied in real contexts is not a matter of reading the document. Ethics training programs focused on the implementation of CoE/CoC are not a waste of time, not even when these organisational policies have been developed in a multi-stakeholder system. It may inform better on what the policy says, but it can also explain how a decisionmaking model should be applied to the code.
Secondly, the Ethics training may also be used to inform the new employees during the induction period. These people have never participated in the making of the CoE/CoC and they need to understand the values, principles and norms they share with their co-workers.
Myth 7. Ethics training is all about what our bosses demand from us. It doesn’t have anything to do with employees’ rights, but with their obligations.
Ethics training programs may be focused on employees’ obligations (moral, professional etc.). Is it wrong? Not really; sometimes a company implements a training only to refresh the information about the obligations of its employees. It does so in order to prevent cases when people says “I didn’t know”.
Of course, a balance between obligations and rights make them more willing to join the discussions and become “change agents”. This depends heavily on what the training programs has to offer.
Myth 8. An on-line Ethics training is just as efficient as a face-to-face program.
A lot of multinationals have introduced on-line Ethics training as a way of cutting training costs. Instead of the classical system with face-to-face programs, they have invested a lot in video training, in platforms with questions and real-life simulations etc. Are these inefficient or, on the contrary, just as efficient as the face-to-face programs? We don’t really know. There is no study to support any of these claims. The reality is that not doing anything in this area can lead to greater sanctions and settlements than taking significant steps towards establishing a regular Ethics training system. Thus all the expenses associated with this this kind of training should not be considered a cost, but an investment that secures the organisation against troublemakers and turbulences.
Myth 9. An external Ethics trainer is more credible than our Ethics & Compliance Officer.
As in the previous case, we do not have sufficient studies to determine if this myth is true or not, but we know for sure that in many cases the Ethics & Compliance Officer is perceived as the watchdog in the service of management. This may undermine his authority to raise specific questions concerning ethical behaviour. At the same time, external Ethics trainers might be unfamiliar with the industry and its particularities therefore it could undermine their credibility.
Myth 10. Our organisation did not register any ethics incident, so there is no need to spend time and money with Ethics training.
This is a common mentality among many top managers: if we didn’t have any incident, we don’t need to bother. In reality, not having incidents registered with the Ethics & Compliance Officer is not necessarily an indicator for a healthy organisational culture. If we look at the example of the public administration in transition countries, we will see that many civil servants fear retaliation and this is why they refuse to
The idea of an Ethics training plan is not to be reactive, to change the situation after an organisational crisis, but to prevent and help the organisation from within. People who say they work in ethical organisations are more likely to stay with their organisations in times of trouble than leave at the first sign of problems. Moreover, they are more likely to try to prevent trouble and talk openly about the potential ways of securing the organisation from external or internal negative forces.
*This list of ten myths is far from being comprehensive. There are many more myths and variations of them. Some are related to the way in which Business Ethics is approached in general, others with the training in general. I hope I have managed to open a debate on this subject that will help us better understand the role of the Ethics & Compliance Officers. In the next issue of this journal, this discussion will be continued with an article on the effectiveness of Ethics training programs.