Can You Teach Ethical Behavior?

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Ethics training is hardly a foreign concept to fraud examiners. Most organizations have some form of mandatory ethics training as a part of their compliance programs. But can you actually teach people to make ethical decisions? Or are these trainings only a formality?

Mary Breslin, founder of Verracy Training and Consulting, explored this topic with attendees at the 30th Annual ACFE Global Fraud Conference on Tuesday, June 25. “How do we teach ethics in a way that people actually learn ethical decision-making skills?” she asked.

One of the first things to keep in mind with ethical training is that while it would be convenient if humans were inherently good or evil, or if every situation was black or white, life primarily doesn’t work that way. Good people, or well-intentioned organizations, can make unethical decisions due to the context of their environment or situation. A company might start out with a strong ethical foundation, but as increasing demands from clients, greed of higher-ups and other outside factors start to influence the atmosphere of the organization, the values of company will become skewed.

“No organization goes bad overnight. It happens incrementally,” said Breslin. “They don’t even know how they got there … they were focused on what was important to the company.” The issue is when what is important to the company becomes something unattainable without sacrificing ethics.

One large factor in how individuals end up making unethical decisions is ethical blindness. When the context of a situation becomes stronger than reason in decision-making, people can justify making decisions that go directly against their personal values. The way that they often rationalize these decisions is to remove the ethically challenging portion of it — either consciously or unconsciously.

Breslin shared the Ford Pinto case as an example. Ford went to market with their Pinto model even though they knew it had a design flaw that would prove fatal to passengers. Despite protests from engineers that people would die, the decision makers only crunched the numbers based on how much money would be lost with issuing a recall, or trashing the models already produced, and they found that settling lawsuits for wrongful deaths would be cheaper than taking the car off the road.

“We don’t even see that what we’re doing has an ethical element to it,” said Breslin. They were able to remove human lies from the equation and made it a question about numbers instead. The curious thing with ethical blindness is also that it usually only exists in the vacuum of that stressful context. “It’s situational. It’s a temporary state. When you leave that situation, you go home, and you go back to your normal values.”

So how can people learn to maintain their ethical values while making decisions? The first thing Breslin suggested is to do away with relying just on presenting case studies. “They’re not learning, they’re getting a history lesson. We already know the outcome,” said Breslin. She also recommends role-playing scenarios that ask the same question, or present the same dilemma, multiple times with different pieces of information added to the context each time. Create a challenging environment where we don’t already know the right answer.

In lieu of just presenting a worst-hits list of ethical disasters in business, she recommends focusing on the factors that lead to unethical decision-making. Trainings should emphasize how big of a role uncertainty and fear can play in what they decide. “Teach them what leads to ethical blindness. Teach them to deconstruct and reconstruct their thinking,” said Breslin.