What Good Can Ethics Training Do For Adults? —A Lot.

It’s true that organizational ethics training cannot turn an unethical person into an ethical one—there is no substitute for a lifetime of ethical training. It can, however, equip them to build on the ethical training they’ve already had so they can navigate the ethical challenges they face in their current jobs.


The ideal childhood ethics training equips individuals to navigate a broad range of ethical dilemmas in everyday settings. “Be kind,” and, “Don’t lie, cheat, or steal,” is good advice that will help individuals navigate a broad range of ethical challenges at school and in their personal lives. But as we confront new challenges, how many of us have struggled to determine how best to apply these broad guidelines to new ethical dilemmas—especially those arising in the specialized roles we take on in our careers?

As we confront new situations and take on new roles, we need to build on the ethical decision-making skills we acquired as children. Common sense morality is not always sufficient to provide the guidance we need. Consider the following cases.

Part of your job is to manage the company’s top performing salesperson, Steve. Steve is consistently rude and aggressive when interacting with other employees. Several people have complained about Steve, and there is a high turnover among employees who work with him. When you discussed this issue with Steve’s previous manager, he claimed that it was best to avoid penalizing this behavior because doing so will cause Steve to leave the company and sales will decline as a result.


You’re a new employee on a team that is charged with filling 10 orders per day. When the equipment you use functions well, your team is able to fill extra orders. However, sometimes the equipment fails and you have to wait for a repairman to fix them. On those days, you often cannot meet your quota. Your team deals with this problem by under-reporting its productivity on days that it fills more than 10 orders and “bankrolls” them so they can use them to make up for the lost productivity on bad days.

There are several factors that make ethical challenges like these so difficult to navigate. First, when you are working under your official capacity as an employee, you are acting on behalf of the organization, and it may not always be clear what choices your organization would endorse. Second, as an employee you are part of a system of people that at least partially determines what you are empowered to do and what the consequences of your actions will be, and you may not have the information you need to know what actions will yield the desired outcome.

Good ethics training can help address both of these factors. It can clarify expectations about how the organization’s mission and core values are supposed to guide the behavior of employees in each section of the organization and give employees information about the organizational system that partially determines the outcome of their actions. In addition, ethics training can influence the way your organizational system functions by clarifying expectations about how employees should work together.

To achieve desired results, ethics training should not just reiterate the rules of commonsense morality. Ethics training cannot replace a lifetime of character training—it cannot turn a vicious person into a virtuous person. However, ethics training can give employees the tools to navigate ethical challenges unique to the roles they occupy in your organization.

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