Supporting Ethical Employees


By Jean Thilmany September 1, 2007

HR Magazine, September 2007With the right training, employees can learn to make ethical decisions when issues aren't simply black or white.

A short time after Best Buy Co. of Richfield, Minn., officially adopted its code of ethics in 2000, the company began providing annual ethics training for its 140,000 employees across the United States and Canada.

But nothing is ever easy, and settling on a training method that best suited the retailer’s culture and workforce took time, says Kathleen Edmond, who became the company’s chief ethics officer in 2002 and oversaw its first ethics training program in 2003. “It was only minimally effective,” she says. “It didn’t take place at the time employees had questions about something going on in the workplace. It happened out of context.” 

Undaunted, Edmond started training around specific work issues. The first year’s theme was high-stakes conversations—how to initiate them, what to say and how to listen. This time, the content fit the company’s culture, she says, but the training methods didn’t. Traditional stand-up delivery, where a trainer speaks to an audience, and sign-in style training, requiring attendees to sign in and document that they’ve received training, weren’t always effective. “At some companies, that works, but check-the-box training doesn’t work for us.” 

Today, all new Best Buy employees receive some form of ethics training during orientation—stand-up training to quickly get administrative employees up-to-speed and computer-based training for retail store employees. 

Edmond spearheads an effort to update the company’s code of ethics and to develop new, decentralized ethics programs to be offered in its eight U.S. business territories. Programs in Canada will follow. 

As Edmond discovered, for ethics training to be effective, its form has to mesh with a company’s culture, size and workforce requirements. Human resource departments that develop strong ethics programs can help companies protect their reputations and strengthen employee loyalty. 

According to research conducted by the Kenexa Research Institute, working within a strong ethical culture can have a positive effect on an employee’s level of pride in an organization, confidence in its future and overall satisfaction. The institute is a division of Kenexa, a recruiting software and services provider in Wayne, Pa.

Elevating Ethics

For many companies, especially those operating globally in places where standards of workplace conduct may vary, ethics training has become a high priority. In a 2005 Society for Human Resource Management Weekly Survey, 32 percent of HR professionals indicated that their organizations offer ethics training. Of those, 31 percent offer training to executives and senior managers. 

Keith Darcy says corporate training programs “have become even more robust” since passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. He is executive director of the Ethics and Compliance Officer Association, a 1,400-member organization with headquarters in Waltham, Mass. 

Even though the federal law doesn’t require employers to provide ethics training, under federal sentencing guidelines, doing so can reduce mandatory fines imposed on companies found guilty of wrongdoing. Yet many companies still lack formal programs to train their employees in ethics. 

“The first goal of training is to develop a common language for what ethics is and what the company espouses as its values,” Darcy says. “It’s useful to spend time during any training taking people through the language of ethics and values. You want to reinforce the values, code and resources the company has and to maintain that focus.”

Can you actually train an employee to act ethically?

Human resource professionals interviewed say no amount of training will ensure that employees will choose the desired behavior in every situation. After all, the most ethical response to a situation often isn’t black or white, Darcy says. 

But training can start a useful dialogue about right and wrong behavior that employees could remember when murky situations arise, says Deborah Haliczer, director of employee relations at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. 

Under a 2004 Illinois law, all state employees are required to receive annual, computer-based, state-prescribed ethics training. “The training has raised awareness about [employees’] personal behaviors,” Haliczer says, citing an example: “They can’t use departmental fax machines to fax notices about selling a house or having a garage sale.” 

Ethics trainers strive to give employees a solid framework for their reasoning, so they can figure out the right thing to do in particular situations, says Bob McKinney, deputy general counsel at EnPro Industries Inc., a company headquartered in Charlotte, N.C., that makes industrial products such as seals for air compressors and engines. “We emphasize skills development,” he says. “There’ll always be gray areas. But we want to develop a skill set that employees can use to think about ethical issues after training ends.”

Guiding Ethical Decisions

After laying out the company code, many managers turn to interactive exercises to help reinforce the ethics message and give employees a way to think creatively about ethical responses. Companies often find that Internet-based scenarios—either purchased from a vendor or produced in-house—can help employees weigh choices and make decisions in situations where answers aren’t always clear. 

Take Caterpillar, the Peoria, Ill.-based manufacturer of construction and mining equipment. During annual ethics training, the company’s 95,000 employees consider a series of questions presented to them either via the Internet or—for factory-floor employees without computer access—on paper, says Nancy Snowden, director of Caterpillar’s office of business practices. The scenarios, written in-house, encourage employees to ponder the best ways to behave in particular situations. They can consult the code of ethics as they consider their responses. 

Caterpillar contracts with a vendor to ensure that all employees have taken, and passed, the training each year. 

Scenarios and questions vary, depending on employees’ job duties, Snowden says. For example, plant-floor employees might be presented with the following scenario: “I’ve noticed another group now uses a cleaning agent that works well for them. I’ve recently started adding the agent to my solution, and I’ve found it helps with cleaning. Can I continue?” 

Potential answers might include:

  • No, this isn't part of the job description.
  • Do whatever it takes to get your job done.
  • Check with an environmental health and safety group to ensure the combination is safe.

“We’re really trying to train the people to do things we’d like them to do. So we try to include situations they would deal with,” Snowden says. 

Internet-based scenarios are also the norm when the human resource department at EnPro carries out annual ethics training. The company purchased special training software from LRN, a Los Angeles-based provider of corporate ethics software applications, says Sheri Tiernan, director of human resources. LRN often tailors questions to EnPro’s needs, she adds. 

To ensure tangible results, employees must retake the course—answering different questions each time—until they score 100 percent.

Keeping Up with Changes

Later this year, Lubrizol Corp., a specialty chemical manufacturer in Wickliffe, Ohio, will roll out a revised ethics guideline. The guideline was introduced in 1980 as a one-page document, was updated many times and is now a 36-page pamphlet, says Cathy Engel, ethics manager. To complement the revision, she’ll oversee training all employees on the changes. 

Because employees learn in different ways, Engel, after her talk about the revision, will initiate a game modeled after “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”; it will help reinforce the changes, she says. The software, Game Show Pro 3, is from LearningWare of Minneapolis. 

“We divide groups into two teams so they play against each other, and they have a lot of fun with it. It makes a nice variation from the straight lecture,” Engel says. Teams are questioned on certain aspects of the guideline and choose among four answers.

Taking Lessons Overseas

It can be particularly challenging to communicate a company’s ethical practices and guidelines across cultures. Ethics training can help define behavior expected of an employee who might not be aware of differences between U.S. and overseas workplaces, Tiernan says. EnPro has grown through mergers and acquisitions and now has operations in Brazil, China, Europe, India and Mexico. And executives expect to double the company’s size in the next five years. 

“We’re a very dispersed organization without the ability to touch employees on a personal level,” Tiernan says. “It’s important we send common and consistent messages to explain to employees in other countries what is ethical behavior from our standpoint.” 

That’s why EnPro supplements its annual ethics training with quarterly software modules that give an overview of a particular issue as it’s seen in the workplace. Overseas organizations often can choose to learn about a specific topic. Recently, for example, employees received programming on diversity and workplace harassment after requesting the modules. 

“In a particular country, there may not be a legal statute that prohibits harassment like there is in the States, but it’s important [that] people in those countries know there’s a standard we hold our employees to,” Tiernan says. 

European employees were particularly interested in a program that gave an overview of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. “Most everyone in North America knows Sarbanes-Oxley, but in Europe that was the first class they wanted,” Tiernan says. “They’d heard so much about it, but they didn’t know what it was.”

Improving Success

How do you ensure your company’s ethics message really resonates? HR professionals have some tips:

  • Give employees a way to air ethics questions anonymously. EnPro operates a hotline that employees can call and, without identifying themselves, raise questions about sticky situations. Let’s say a salesperson wonders if it’s appropriate for a potential client to pay for a business dinner. The salesperson calls the hotline, leaves the question and calls again 10 days later to receive a response.

  • Find ways to keep the ethics policy in front of employees all year. To remind employees about the ethics policy even when training isn’t in session, Lubrizol maintains an ethics page on its intranet and distributes pamphlets on policies such as appropriate use of e-mail and other technology. Parts of the company’s ethics code are displayed on bulletin boards, posters and screen savers.

  • Hire and promote employees who demonstrate behavior in line with the message. Caterpillar makes sure its employees demonstrate company values. But how can human resources know which candidates are likely to do that? Snowden recommends asking the right questions during the job interview. Have the applicant talk about a time someone asked him to take an action that made him uncomfortable. What did he do? 

At Best Buy, as at Caterpillar, job advancement comes after a values assessment. Edmond says 20 percent of an employee’s performance review is weighed on the ethics and company values the employee has demonstrated during the year. During the review, employees discuss situations where they’ve put company values in play as well as specific goals they’d previously set in these areas.

​Corporate Best Buy values include showing humility and respect. All employees are encouraged to brainstorm on ways they can demonstrate the company’s values. 

But all the training in the world won’t take root, Snowden says, unless a company’s code of ethics is presented clearly and is accessible to employees so they can refer to it daily.

“Everything cascades from that code to the values, behaviors and actions people should take,” she says.

Jean Thilmany is a freelance writer based in St. Paul, Minn.

Web Extras

SHRM article: Do the Right Thing (HR Magazine)

SHRM article: Compliance Is not Enough: Law Enforcement Looks to a Company's Ethical Culture (Legal Report)

SHRM research: Business Ethics-Codes of Conduct/Ethics Programs (Briefly Stated)

SHRM survey: Does your organization offer formal ethics training? (May 2005)

Web site: Society of Corporate Compliance & Ethics


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