Can Ethical Behavior Be Taught?

Recently, I’ve found myself speaking to several professional groups about whether and how ethics and professionalism can be taught. The good news is that yes, these subjects can be — e.g., the content can be delivered to students through instruction.  But, there’s more to consider than simply teaching these concepts. What we should be focusing on is whether ethical and professional training can be learned. And, how can key lessons be sustained after the initial learning?
Issues around the quality of teaching are coming into focus in our school system.  We should be scrutinizing our workplace the same way.  After all, we’re talking about companies spending billions of dollars every year on a variety of learning initiatives.  And, a significant chunk of that money is going towards compliance and related workplace training.
When evaluating the quality of learning and sustainability, the following questions should be considered:
Is the learning engaging?  It’s easy to figure out what topics need to be taught, but that doesn’t solve the problem of determining what will capture the attention of most students.  Lecturing a group of adults on key information is both unnecessary and wasteful.  Most students, no matter what their age, quickly lose interest when flooded with facts, statistics, and lessons that they would just as soon read.
Similarly, many learning initiatives are based on delivering online modules to students who take them at their desks at their convenience.  The reality, however, is that many students taking these courses are busy multitasking.  They check their email, answer the phone, respond to texts, or surf the web while the programs run in the background.  No matter how good the content is, there is very little that can be obtained through this delivery system.
What are the most important takeaways? Some lessons are incredibly complex, focusing on the intricacies of sentencing guidelines, ethical standards, rules, policies, and the like.  They communicate information but don’t give direction. Most students can retain only a small amount of what they read or hear and will soon forget broad-based chunks of disparate informational bits.
Additionally, learning on ethics quite often provides so many rules and standards that it is confusing as to what is vital and what is, in a sense, a “nice to have.”  Instead, participants need to learn a few foundational principles they can apply to most situations. One such principle is where to get help handling workplace issues. This should be encouraged in the strongest way possible. Another is to encourage and welcome questions and concerns about virtually all workplace issues, including ethical matters. These keys are far more practical than trying to mix basic training with advanced ethical analysis.
How does leadership communicate key lessons?  In many organizations, training is “rolled out” via emails directing participants to take a required course by a certain date.  And, there is usually no clear connection between such emails (or other directives) from the participant’s manager/leader and the actual learning content. Quite often, when there are messages, they are negative, such as:  “…get this done…”; “…it’s a pain, but we all have to do it…”; “…if you want that bonus, get through it…”; or “…don’t worry about it, just get finished…”
Obviously, such messaging undermines whatever value is being delivered when instead, it should provide a vital link to the learning.  After all, don’t we learn best when leaders we work with and respect point out what is most important and, of course, lead and apply the same lessons in their own behavior?
Is there a plan to sustain learning? No matter how effective learning is transmitted – it must be reinforced.  Unless there is a plan to: (1) communicate information regularly, not just as a one-time event, (2) make certain that leaders model and communicate key principles, and (3) have some way of refreshing learning and holding people accountable for key lessons, it is likely the learning will not stick over an extended period of time.
Final Thoughts
In one of the sessions I recently delivered, a senior executive at a major military contractor said, “Well, it’s complicated to do all that stuff, and I’m not sure how we would get it done.”  My response to her was, “Your organization has built some of the finest military applications in the history of the world.  Are you telling me this type of initiative is more complicated than that?”  After a moment, she shook her head and said, “No.”
Ethical principles can be taught with the right learning method and sustained by having a strong plan in place. The key question, however, is how important is this initiative to the leaders who manage the entire scope of the enterprise?  They are the ones ultimately responsible for understanding and conveying this message to their teams in a positive light and investing the resources and commitment needed to build ethical workplaces.

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