How effective is ethics training really?
By Logan Watts, PhD
Nearly everyone who has worked in a large organization of any kind has participated in a training course related to ethics. The topics covered in these courses vary (e.g. organizational values, handling conflicts of interest, sexual harassment, etc.), but the intentions are usually the same. That is, the purpose of these courses is to build knowledge and skills that help employees make better decisions. The reality, however, is that many times these courses miss their mark. More often than not, ethics courses are delivered in short, online learning modules that are poorly designed, ineffective, and result in negative reactions. But is doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, when appropriately designed, ethics training courses can result in big improvements in employee knowledge and skills.
How do I know this is true? Science. In a recent meta-analysis (note: a meta-analysis is a study of several studies) published in the Journal of Academic Ethics, my colleagues and I reviewed over 40 published, empirical studies that presented ethics training data. We found that on average, across all these studies, ethics training produces measurable improvements in the ethics of people’s decisions. Keep in mind this analysis included 7,677 participants, so we can be very confident in the results.
There is a caveat to these findings, however. Some of these training programs were much more effective than others. In particular, the most effective courses were delivered in person (as opposed to online) and provided lots of practice opportunities to help employees develop their ethical decision-making skills. In other words, how the ethics training program is designed and delivered has a big impact on how effective it is.
Scientific findings rarely provide “yes” or “no” answers. How effective is ethics training really? It depends. The good news is that scientific consensus is beginning to form around a set of best practices, or principles that, if followed, will result in more effective ethics training. If you’re going to invest money in ethics training for your employees, why not invest in a proven approach?
The Ethics Advantage Team