Telling stories – using scenarios to communicate ethical conduct

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HR professionals have a central role in establishing an ethical culture for all organisations. Given high-profile misconduct cases involving companies which, in spite of having an ethics policy or code, experienced near disastrous reputation hits, it is clear that it is not enough to have a code of ethics and hope that employees read it, understand it, and apply it throughout their day-to-day working lives. 

HR departments have unique access to all staff within an organisation throughout their career, from induction training to exit interviews and can be key in supporting a unified workplace culture across all functions. 

Employees receive corporate communications in different forms every day - from their manager, from the CEO, from HQ, from different departments - and ensuring that messages about ethical behaviour reach and engage them amongst all this corporate chatter is a challenge. For an ethics programme to be successful, ethical values need to be embedded into company culture so that they are reflected in the way that business is actually done. This requires more than just imparting knowledge and raising awareness of expected standards – the challenge is to communicate their relevance and importance at all levels and locations in a way that impacts on understanding, decisions and behaviours. 

Our research at the IBE has found that nearly 40% of UK employees do not report receiving any training on standards of ethical conduct. Yet, failing to train staff in the importance of ethical values and how to apply them leaves companies open to integrity risk and reputational damage. Businesses that train their staff to understand and implement codes of ethics have also been found over the long term to outperform financially those that do not.

Scenario-based training is a means to sensitise staff to the ethical dilemmas they may face in their day-to-day work and gives them the confidence to deal with those dilemmas in a manner which is consistent with the organisation’s ethical values.

We love to hear stories and we love to tell them. No matter how sophisticated society now is compared to the days when we huddled round the cave campfire, stories continue to be our preferred way of communicating and sharing our experiences of life. Whether it’s an after-dinner speech or a day-long training session, most situations where we seek to make a connection are improved by the telling of a good story.

Business ethics training can include material which seems distant to staff and how they do their day-to-day job. A set of compliance dictats communicated with slides animated with clip art is unlikely to engage anyone.

To be effective, learning needs to fit with trainees’ experience of the way their world operates, and be practical and applicable to their lives. Using scenarios in a learning situation supports these three elements - experience, practicality and application - and also adds a fourth dimension of participation. If the desired learning outcome of ethics training is ultimately to encourage personal responsibility for the ethical conduct of the organisation, it is imperative that trainees are engaged in the learning process. Scenarios can foster that engagement.

Scenarios are a means of communicating an organisation’s ethical values, standards of behaviour and approach to speaking up about misconduct. But above all, they are stories, and as stories they engage and inspire people. By linking learning to real life and the experiences of the participants, scenarios are arguably a more effective training mechanism. When done well, trainees are able to identify with the characters, situations and relationships portrayed - even if they have not directly experienced the ethical issue being communicated. This connection is the key to creating the motivation to learn and embed the message of the training.

Using scenarios:

  • gives employees practice in talking about ethical dilemmas and ‘voicing values’ thereby giving them the confidence to act appropriately when faced with real-life challenges
  • provides a values perspective on right behaviours, rather than simply a compliance one
  • communicates new ways of thinking about ethical issues as different viewpoints are shared
  • gives employees practice at applying ethical frameworks and company standards to workplace situations, and
  • the training is an opportunity for a ‘dry run’ so that employees will know what to do when confronted with a real situation

One of the key benefits to using scenarios to communicate ethical values is their flexibility - they can be:

  • brief Q&As in a code of ethics
  • fictionalised case studies in a staff newsletter
  • printed on a pack of cards for team leaders to use throughout a business
  • serialised ‘ethics soap operas’
  • dramatised performances at an away day, or
  • used in group discussions as part of a dedicated ethics training workshop

Evidence suggests that a strong ethical culture may provide financial benefits. Where there is a culture of doing business ethically there is a consequent improvement in overall reputation and subsequent improvement in financial performance. Companies with ethics policies and codes are more effective in engaging with their employees, provide a beneficial working environment and have a culture that enables unethical behaviour to be identified and dealt with early. As employees prefer working for such organisations, there are recruitment and retention benefits. Consequently, companies would have less costs associated with labour turnover, union disputes and employment litigation. 

Through HR, ethics can be given credibility and aligned with how businesses run. HR is responsible for key systems and processes which can underpin effective delivery of messages the organisation wishes to convey about ethics. With HR’s expertise in change management and internal communications, and by working in partnership with those responsible for ethical performance within their organisation, they can help to integrate ethics and scenarios into processes such as the employer brand, recruitment, induction, appraisal, retention, motivation, reward, diversity, coaching and training.

Your organisation is full of stories – use them to communicate the importance of doing business ethically. Creating ‘water cooler conversations’ out of fictional ethical dilemmas is one way to encourage staff to think about how business is done - and ought to be done.

Copies of the IBE Good Practice Guide – Developing and Using Business Ethics Scenarios, written by Katherine, can be ordered via the IBE website.
 
 
 
 

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