8 ways to refocus compliance training from rules to ethics

Posted on May 29, 2019


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There’s no getting away from rules. There will always be legal, regulatory, statutory or mandatory requirements that businesses must obey, but increasingly, companies are recognising the limitations of a narrow approach to rules-based compliance. Corporate leaders are also acknowledging the benefits of trading on ethical principles. 

The evidence is hard to ignore. The Ethics & Compliance Initiative (ECI) has researched the outcomes of large companies investing in ethics programmes. The ECI found that, on average, these organisations experienced half the compliance violations of those without an ethical programme in place. In fact, many other key indicators also improved, including pressure to compromise ethics standards, observation of misconduct, reporting of violations, and retaliation for reporting.   

But ethics aren’t like rules, there is often no right or wrong answer. Ethics are ambiguous and nuanced; they are difficult to measure and complex to define; they are linked to our values and beliefs; and they can’t be learned like a rule book. 

Eight ethical essentials 

So how do you embed ethics into your corporate compliance culture? We’ve identified eight essentials to include in a learning programme to enable employees to understand and apply ethics in a meaningful way. 

1. Relevance   

People must be able to understand how an ethical principle relates to their day to day work. It must have a recognisable context and the ethical concept should have relevance to their job. Imagery and visuals that are bespoke to your brand have a much better chance of conveying this than stock photography. 

2. Authenticity 

Can I see this happening in my organisation? This is the question at the back of people’s minds when they are learning about ethics. If it doesn’t ring true, people will find it hard to embrace the concept, and even harder to apply it successfully. Basing learning content on real-life stories from your business will help to ensure authenticity.   

3. Meaning 

You will need to consider not just the meaning of an ethical principle within the organisation, but also whether it speaks to employees personally. Firstly, do they understand what the training is about, and secondly can they see the benefit for them as individuals? 

4. Emotion 

How do I feel about this? It’s not a question we usually associate with compliance training, however, learning about ethical values and principles shouldn’t be disconnected from emotions. How people feel about a topic is an important consideration and a tool you can leverage to help them learn how to make ethical decisions. Using videos to create empathy and tell a story will build this emotional connection. 

5. Positivity 

Telling people what not to do has its place, but it is much more powerful to affirm positive behaviours by showing people the right way to act. This positivity reinforces the ethical message. Choose scenarios that showcase the positive behaviours you want to see. 

6. Experiential 

How would I act? An effective ethics programme should prompt the audience to ask this question. Without a right or wrong answer, it’s vital that people get a chance to explore ethical decision making. Allowing space within the learning programme for practise is important, as is the opportunity for further discussion. By including some form of experiential learning, you’ll empower people to think for themselves. 

7. Diversity 

Ethics programmes should be inclusive by design. By showing a broad range of people, environments and scenarios within the learning programme, you’re teaching that ethics is for everyone, and that your business needs diversity for success. Think carefully about your portrayal of characters and scenarios within the learning. 

8. Continuous 

Ethics aren’t set in stone for all time, they can and do change, so training needs to be updated as circumstances change. In addition, one-off training programmes are unlikely to work in isolation. Effective ethics training must be part of an ongoing campaign of learning that generates long term engagement over time. 

More powerful than rules 

AstraZeneca, the global biopharmaceutical business, successfully implemented these eight essentials when they collaborated with us to redesign their Code of Ethics programme in 2018. By moving away from ‘tick box’ compliance training based on rules and conduct AstraZeneca is embedding an ethical culture into its DNA

Ethics are the principles and judgements that govern what we do and why we do it. They are, arguably, more powerful than rules alone because they can help people do the right thing when faced with a situation outside the norm. Given this, they are particularly valuable to those organisations facing constant regulatory upheaval, shifting market conditions or evolving technologies. And the organisations that can train their people more effectively in ethics, are those more likely to thrive as the world around them changes. 

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