It’s been nearly five years since Enron, but organizations still are struggling to create meaningful ethics training for their employees. And with the recent 24-year sentencing of ex-Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, executives are beginning to see how drastic the consequences of unethical behavior can be.
According to Lynn Lieber, CEO and founder of Workplace Answers, a training and consulting company, federal legislation of various types has appeared since Enron, most notably the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, yet organizations still have issues.
“Many employers have tightened up on the financial integrity aspect of their business in reaction to Sarbanes-Oxley,” Lieber said. “They’ve done audits. They do certifications, so their business units are in compliance and things like that. Most companies have a code of conduct but bringing that home to an employee as to what that means to them or their supervisor is one of two areas that we’ve really failed in. The training has to be very personalized to that employee. What does a conflict of interest mean to a salesperson in a specific organization? This training isn’t one size fits all — so much of this is very amorphous gray area. It’s not easy to understand that being a board member on a nonprofit organization could create a conflict of interest with your organization.”
Lieber said corporate employers need to take ethics training seriously, and off-the-shelf products won’t work.
“There are plenty of training products that promise to teach you conflicts of interest in 30 minutes,” Lieber said. “That doesn’t really relate to what an employee does. When you read a record retention policy, you can’t really imagine how that relates to your job. We need to elucidate that for employees and supervisors: ‘Here are some situations in your own workplace.’ Maybe they have happened or maybe management is worried about them happening, but here’s how this situation would present itself in your day-to-day life. Employees and supervisors will be more interested rather than just some off-the-shelf training — ‘Oh, this is a boring area, conflict of interest. Of course I’m not going to do that.’ Do you know how elusive a subject that can be and different ways it can come up in your job?”
Another area where corporate America has done a poor job is embracing the need for this kind of change in training perspective from the top down, Lieber said.
“We talk the talk, but we haven’t been walking the walk,” Lieber said. “Is America better after the fall of Enron? Have ethics training practices changed? I would say yes and no. We might have put some policies in place and cleaned up on the financial side, but ethics is a whole lot of other things. It’s unlawful harassment like we’ve seen with the Foley scandal. (Mark Foley, a Republican congressman from Florida, sent questionable emails to a teenaged former page.) It can come up in so many different ways, like postdating a stock certificate. I think a lot of CEOs and high-level managers are caught between business and ethics. What if you have a salesperson, and you know they engaged in some borderline activities? Are you going to let go of your top-producing salesperson because of that? Business leaders need to make really tough decisions and promote a zero tolerance where this isn’t accepted. You can’t engage in this behavior, and if you do, you’re going to be terminated for it. You need to have consistent enforcement of that.”
It’s definitely a tough task, but Lieber said CLOs can orchestrate the type of program that could essentially train employees to report incidents involving other employees and supervisors, providing the organization has an effective incident-reporting structure that makes it clear no retaliation will follow these types of disclosures.
“The key to reporting is to have alternative methods of reporting,” Lieber said. “If your supervisor or program director or the head of your internship initiative is engaging in inappropriate behavior, you need to know the organization is committed to not let that happen and is going to take your complaint and deal with it as privately as possible, investigate whatever they need to and then take appropriate action.
“The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) has a big program about youth at work and training young people in what harassment means and how to report things like that. From a training standpoint, it’s interesting because most employers that I’ve worked with who have temporary employees — some of the people are interns or holiday hires — they view them differently than they do regular, full-time employees. That’s not really an employee — ‘That’s a temp,’ or ‘That’s an intern.’ Ironically, those are the people who need training the most, and a lot of times they are bypassed in the training process because it’s very hard to train them. They’re coming on board, leaving — maybe they’re only there two months. How do you get them into training? I think that’s where Web-based training comes in beautifully and can be tailored toward that specific group of employees.”
In order to clarify the company’s position and the importance of ethics training, the learning organization can employ many programmatic strategies to root the company’s position then cascade it down through the organization.“Have an introduction or a video or something from the CEO or a very high-level officer saying, ‘I support this. I agree with this policy, this is what you should do,’” Lieber said. “Again, it comes down to personalization of the training for that employer. If you really know what the corporate culture is and you know what the ethical stamp is, you’re able to weave that into training at all levels. Intersperse videos into various places in ethics training from different ethics champions in the organization. Get their perspective and show that the organization has this deep buy in to the program, that it’s not just some off-the-shelf program that you have to take. ‘We really care about this, and we’re taking the extra step to do a program that is highly customized for our organization in our industry.’”