Training based on realistic scenarios can engage employees with corporate ethical values

We love to hear stories and we love to tell them. From huddling in a cave to our modern sophisticated society, 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.

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 practice reach and engage them amongst all this corporate chatter is a particular challenge.

The goal of any ethics programme is to embed ethical values 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.

Business ethics training can sometimes include material that 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.

As Tim Schultz, director of business ethics and compliance at Raytheon, puts it: “A lot of training is ‘death by PowerPoint’; you have a different training experience when you watch a scenario. When you can visualise a situation, you will remember that before you’re going to remember 30 slides.”

Real world experience

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.

Real challenges

Using scenarios gives staff practice in talking about ethical dilemmas and “voicing values” thereby giving them the confidence to act appropriately when faced with real life challenges. Scenarios provide a values perspective on right behaviours, rather than simply a compliance one.

They communicate new ways of thinking about ethical issues as different viewpoints are shared. Scenarios give employees practice at applying ethical frameworks and company standards to workplace situations. Scenario 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 and 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.

Scenario must-haves

So what makes a good scenario? A new good practice guide from IBE suggests there are a number of factors.

Before starting to develop scenarios, consider the corporate context and motivation for the ethics message or training. Is the company’s approach to ‘doing the right thing’ compliance – or values-led? Is ethics part of routine annual training? Or has there been a ‘misconduct crisis’ or merger or acquisition?

Next, profile the intended audience for the scenarios. Consider seniority, autonomy, roles and functions, and take into account local and national cultural differences.

In order for the scenarios to be effective, they must be relevant to work life at your organisation. Identify salient ethical issues for the company/sector using the code of ethics, identified risks, staff surveys, data from speak up lines, and sector headlines in the media.

Sandra Franklin, compliance officer at Stryker says: “Using case studies based on the industry of the trainees has real meaning – it reflects what they do on a day to day basis. A case study is never really relevant until it comes into your own territory.”

Source material can be gathered from within the organisation. Ask for stories and relevant situations from ethics ambassadors and business heads. But remember, if using real cases, to ensure they are made sufficiently anonymous.

Make it fun

Consider the style of the scenarios: is humour appropriate? Humour can be a valuable tool in training, enabling people to relax and enjoy the training experience, making them more likely to open up and participate in discussions. Eliciting a laugh can be a great way to connect with participants, and for them to connect with one another.

Humour should, however, be used with caution. It goes without saying that any humour should not be based on racism, sexism or anything which goes against the ethical values of the company. Also, be aware of cross-cultural differences; what may be funny in one territory may not translate well in another.

Be aware that some audiences may feel that using humour trivialises the subject and the seriousness of the topic. For example, if the training is part of an internal trust repair workshop following a corporate crisis, emotions may still be too raw to look at scenarios which portray similar events in a comical way. A scenario for senior managers in the wake of a crisis may require more gravitas than a video for recent graduate recruits.

Your organisation is full of stories – use them to communicate the importance of doing business ethically. Creating “watercooler conversations” out of fictional ethical dilemmas is one way to encourage staff to think about how business is done, and ought to be done.

Katherine Bradshaw is the author of Developing and Using Business Ethics Scenarios, the sixth in the IBE Good Practice Guides, available from

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