As one of the world’s leading professional services companies, Ernst & Young (E&Y) has more than 120,000 people in 140 countries worldwide who provide clients with a variety of services that pertain to audit and risk-related services, taxes and transactions. Michael Hamilton, chief learning and development officer for the Americas, said undeniable ethics is the foundation of why people hire the firm.

“They expect us to be objective, and they expect us to be independent — we can’t ever be in a position to have our ethics challenged,” Hamilton explained. “In the last 10 years in the financial world, we have become a very rule-based organization, but rules don’t govern everything you do on a job. Ethics training and value training are about providing all of our people with a clear message and some guiding principles about what to do when the rules don’t address a situation or area.”

To help provide employees with an ethical foundation, E&Y implemented a formal ethics curriculum, including a mandatory two-hour, Web-based ethics course titled, “Living Our Core Values.”

The first 45 minutes of the course set forth the ethical foundation and values for the firm. The remaining bulk of the learning is experiential, applying E&Y standards or the firm’s collective wisdom regarding those values to real-life situations.

Historically, E&Y ethics training had been based on an apprenticeship business model. Values and lessons learned were essentially handed down from teacher to student. And although it’s critical that all employees be on the same page ethically, Hamilton said that model doesn’t work as fast as the company would like.

“We put employees in situations and ask them to take the firm’s values and ethics to solve problems at the firm itself,” Hamilton said. “It’s the only way you can give them that experience. You can talk at them all day, but when it comes to making tough calls and essentially interpreting between the lines, you have to let people have an emotional connection that says, ‘This is what I feel, in my heart, is right, based on the firm’s values.’ You can’t expect people to exercise the right answers unless you give them a chance to apply them to real-life situations.”

Hamilton said taking a formal approach to ethics training was an effort to express to the company at large that what E&Y does in the professional services industry matters.

“If a client were to ask you to do something that you believe is contrary to your standards as a licensed professional, or a client puts you in a tough situation, how would you react?” Hamilton said. “There are no black-and-white answers, but one of the firm’s beliefs is that there is no client that’s more important than the firm. If our biggest, longest-standing client were to ever ask us to do something inappropriate, the firm would resign before we would do that.”

E&Y has elevated the ethics and compliance in the firm, said Jeffrey Hoops, ethics and compliance officer for the Americas and chief privacy officer.

“We’re trying to bake ethics training into all of our curriculum,” he said. “It’s about continually reminding people that doing the right thing and speaking up when you see the wrong thing is not just accepted — it is the expected way we do things at Ernst & Young.”

– Kellye Whitney,


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