Ethics training – making it real: part two of our interview with Steve Priest

In today’s post we conclude our interview with Steve Priest.  Information about Steve, and Part One of the interview, can be found here.

Should ethics training be a stand-alone offering or is ethics part of broader training (compliance, leadership, etc.)? Jeff, I wish I had 1%–even 1/10 of 1%–of the money companies have wasted on ethics and compliance training in the past 20 years. There is some evidence that training that is risk and role based—and is targeted, short and engaging—can improve employee perceptions of management commitment, and perhaps even decrease the likelihood that they will engage in stupid, unethical or non-compliant behavior. On the other hand, let’s look at the somewhat prominent school in Princeton, your beautiful town. Dan Ariely’s research there found that taking a week long morality course did not affect the rates at which Princeton students cheated in an experiment one week later. What did make a difference? A reminder right before the experiment about the school’s honor code. Short, sweet, targeted, proximate—these were the keys even before the Twitter/Angry Birds generation. So integration makes a lot of sense because we can have much more frequent, relevant touch points.

What works and what doesn’t when it comes to training boards on ethics?  Same question  with senior managers. In the past two months I had the opportunity to train the board of one of the world’s largest energy companies and one of the world’s largest retailers. In the latter case it was the third time they asked me. I think the secret is no secret: board members and senior leaders view themselves as very smart, successful, and ethical. And for the most part they are. Respecting that, and building training that is engaging and relevant to their roles and responsibilities works with senior leaders just like it does with front line employees. Cases and conversation make it real and relevant.

You’ve done ethics & compliance work in close to 50 countries.  Can you describe some of the pitfalls that one can face when training without being sufficiently attuned to the local culture? A number of years ago I was conducting training in Moscow when a person raised his hand and said “You are from Chicago, right?” “Yes.” “Well, I am from Yekaterinburg, and we have hundreds of missiles aimed at you right now.” Usually the defensiveness is not so overt, but it is always in the room.  The biggest danger is the perception of (misplaced) ethical superiority. That is, it is very easy for people to interpret that the reason that an American/Brit/etc. is coming over to conduct ethics/compliance training is because it is believed that the US/Great Britain is ethically superior to whatever country you are in. I address this head on first thing by talking about how I am from Chicago, listing several of the ethical challenges we have faced, and acknowledging that I don’t have all the answers but have become pretty good at thinking about these things. I also try to tap into local ethical heroes or foundations to illustrate that this is not a Western issue—ethics is important in every culture.

Thanks, Steve – wise words.


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