Scope of Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Global Survey on Ethics in the Workplace

Developing Ethics Training Programs

Benefits of Focusing on Ethics in the Workplace

I recently read that the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission has levied a $500 fine against a University of Illinois professor who continually refused to complete the state’s annual ethics training program. The professor maintains the tests are a waste of time and money. However, faced with a potential $5,000 fine for each year of his protest, Lou van den Dries agreed to pay a $500 fine and begin taking the training, according to a May settlement agreement he signed that was made public for the first time by the state Executive Ethics Commission.

Once a year, anyone who works for the Illinois state government or a public university has to take an online ethics test. The fact that the test is administered online indicates the lack of seriousness of those who make up the test and administer it. Ethics is not learned with an online test. You need classroom interaction; sharing of ideas; challenging situations posed by the instructor; and role-play-type situations that mimic the real world for the participants.

The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign math professor called the training an “Orwellian scheme” … “it is Big Brother reducing adults to the status of children,” he wrote. I do not agree with his comments in that regard because an ethics in-class program can be invaluable to advance ethics in the classroom and sensitize teachers to their ethical obligations to students and communities they serve.

Students have a right to be treated and graded fairly by their professors. Some professors talk down to students; belittle them; and make fun of their lack of knowledge. This is ethically inappropriate. My view as a professor has always been to ask myself: ‘How would I like to be treated if I were a student in this class?’ Some professors play favorites in the classroom and in grading. The students they get to know personally through club and other after-school activities get higher grades. I’ve even seen gender-bias crop up in the grading process.

I have previously blogged about the increasing commercialization of academic institutions fueled in part from declining state resources devoted to public education. The result is some professors, area departments, colleges and universities become beholden to external sponsors who provide funding to supplement faculty salaries, support specific programs, and simply to enhance their reputations on campus through the publicity received for their financial support.

Sponsorship of academic faculty and programs create independence issues with respect to how institutions and professors treat their external sponsors and whether all supporters are given the same opportunity to interview students for jobs and play a role in what some would consider purely academic decisions. For example, at my institution a conflict arose when a beef manufacturer who supported the agricultural program balked at the fact a student organization invited a speaker on sustainable food development to speak to students without providing an “alternative point of view.” The threat to end funding for the program influenced the ultimate decision not to go forward with the program in its intended format. Instead, the decision was made to provide equal time for both points of view.

Ethical issues are all around us in the workplace. Whether you work for an educational institution, not-for-profit entity, or private corporation, you have to deal with others and ethics is all about how you make decisions that affect the lives of others and interact with them in the workplace. I get questions all the time about workplace ethics issues. Recently, a reader of my blog sent in a question about a dating relationship between his superior and a female employee that, according to the writer, led to higher pay raises and a promotion for the female employee. The writer was upset because he was up for the same job promotion.

Issues related to discrimination, sexual harassment, unfair treatment and even bullying in the workplace all raise ethical questions that should be dealt with through formal policies and ethics training. The best way to conduct the training is in a classroom setting where simulations and case studies can be used to accurately reflect what goes on in a specific workplace environment. The leader of the program should encourage open communication and be sure there is buy-in by top management.

If you are interested in setting up such a program, feel free to contact me to discuss how best to organize it to maximize the value of the program and develop it in a way that enhances the ethical focus of your organization.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on June 27, 2012