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Online Ethics Training: It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way!

by Renee Sophocles

Do you ever read something online and realize you’re arguing out loud with your computer? Maybe I’m just crazy (let’s call it “passionate”), but that happened to me recently while reading an article.

The article’s basic premise was that online ethics training is stupid and a waste of everyone’s time. I found myself saying “but… but… but” out loud to most of the author’s points, like:

  • Online training is dull, impersonal and simplistic.
  • Examples/scenarios are so black and white.
  • Answers to test questions are too easy.
  • It’s obvious to employees that their employer is making them take the training for “legal ass-covering” (the author’s term, not mine, by the way).

But, I’ll admit, what bothered me most is that the article reflects what most people tell me when I mention what I do for a living. I hear things like: “I HATE that kind of training!” or “Ugh, my company makes us take so many of those courses.”

And I want to say to those people—and more so to their employers, who require the training— “But… it doesn’t have to be this way!”

During my years working in the ethics and compliance industry, I have seen Codes of Conduct evolve from documents that read like legal treatises to easy-to-read, visually appealing, conversational documents. This new and vastly improved generation of Codes actually helps people understand what their company’s values are and what is expected of them as employees. And that is such a good thing!

Just as Codes have evolved, so too should a company’s online ethics and compliance training—and all training, for that matter. We no longer live in a world (and I’m not sure we ever really did) where taking a 45-minute online course on the Code of Conduct or in a particular risk area is a good use of anyone’s time.  

So, what should employers do? Scrap online training all together? Of course not. But employers need to be smarter and make sure they’re engaging their employees with training and communications that actually raise awareness, not cause their employees to resent and ignore what is in front of them.

The same suggestions we’ve made for improving your Code of Conduct also apply to online ethics and compliance training:

  1. Have a conversation. No one wants to take a course that looks like it was written by a lawyer. Use clear, concise, and conversational language.   Keep it simple!
  2. Keep it short. People are bombarded with so much information every day. Keep your content short and compelling. No more 45-minute courses!
  3. Keep it positive. Remind your employees that you know they’ll do the right thing. Don’t limit your material to things employees could do wrong. Instead, introduce topics in aspirational terms, and include characters who, like your employees, are capable of making good decisions.
  4. Think communication, not necessarily “courses.” Sometimes you need a deep dive into a specific risk area, but more often than not, a simple, 1-3 minute communication is enough to raise awareness and remind employees about their ethical responsibilities.
  5. Explore the “gray”: Employees tend to get confused and make mistakes in the “gray areas,” so add complex, real-life scenarios when you can. The right way isn’t always black and white, and often there is more than one ethical path.
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