Ethics is a subject close to the heart of every manager, particularly the HR professionals. I invited Dr Anita Shantaram to share her thoughts on some commonly asked questions about ethics and compliance. Having completed PhD in the field of Business Ethics from BITS Pilani, Dr Anita Shantaram founded Ethics Research and Consulting Pvt. Ltd. in 2016. She has also written in the book ‘Self Development for Sure Success’. Thanks for responding to our questions with insightful answers, Dr Anita, the readers will find these very informative as well.
Q: Hello, Dr Anita! As the Head of The Compliance and Ethics Academy and the Founder of Ethics India- A Legasis Company, your work in this arena is extensive as well as original. My question is ‘Can ethics be taught? Is it a mind set or a skill to be taught?’
Well, I believe everything can be taught. However, the important factor is how well can it be learnt and the question then arises is that do we learn to be ethical or are we born with ethics?
For an answer to this I recommend watching videos of a fascinating study conducted by Yale University called ‘Born Good’. The findings are intriguing.
Teaching ethics over the years, especially to management students, we deliberate a lot and I do share that it is easy to sit in an air-conditioned room and say the right things. But what will we really do when we are out there and faced with an ethical dilemma.
Taking it a step ahead I love what Mary Gentile in her GVV course, Giving Voice to Values, says – Often while facing a conflict of ethics we know the right thing but how would you get the right thing done and thus the practice of building muscle memory.
My published paper ‘Can Ethics be taught?’ that is available on my website highlights that often the case study method and discussing dilemmas is a good way to improve insights and influence ethical behaviour. Because sometimes wrongdoings happen because of a lack of awareness.
So, the ultimate question for the naysayers is instead of the question Can we teach ethics? We need to ask ‘What happens if we don’t teach ethics?’
Q: Why should we have Ethics & Compliance training? Does it work? How do you know that it is working / or has worked? Who should conduct the Ethics training? How should its impact be reviewed?
I have always looked at Ethics training as being proactive. Penalties, Fines, etc. are used to coerce people to avoid doing the wrong things and are reactive in nature. However, the Founder Director of Legasis, Suhas Tuljapurkar stresses that it ought to be ‘Compliance by Choice and that I think is the approach organisations need to take.’
Reading, discussing and talking about ethics also plays the role of ‘priming’ an individual and this exposure prepares individuals to maybe behave appropriately later.
What is important is that ethical standards should be raised through self-control rather than through legal control.
An interesting survey by MIT Management School found that financial advisors who passed an exam focused on ethics were 25% less likely to commit any kind of misconduct.
Any kind of training, and so also ethics and compliance training, cannot be a tick-the-boxes approach. ‘Wow we conducted so many hours of training’. The positive outcome in this scenario is at the very least there was training and the organisation thought it important enough to do it.
The ultimate test of training being effective is when we are able to calculate the ROI. However I am of the opinion that we can’t always do that. Though today, there is enough research which emphasises that there is a business case to doing things ethically and there is a tangible competitive advantage.
In fact my thesis, Ethical Business Practices and Corporate Financial Performance – An Empirical Analysis, also looks at a positive linkage between the two. What I wanted is for people to accept that it is beneficial to be ethical and that it pays out in the long run. The fight is between depth of vision- the short-term and the long-term. If we have the patience for the long-term, there is no doubt about Ethics positively helping our business?
Who should be doing the training? Should it be done by an internal person or should it be outsourced? Should E&C training be done by the HR team, Legal or Compliance team? Whether internal or external trainer, training will not work if the person conducting doesn’t seem to be credible or authentic. In addition if top management support is not there, it will not work. Training skills are also very important as E&C is a subject where ethics can sound preachy and compliance can sound boring and feel like we are policing them.
There are multiple ways of assessing if the E&C programme/training is working. If it leads to reduced misconduct. Or another is when the volume of reports through the organisations hotlines increase after training. E&C audits also could reveal to some extent if E&C training has reduced non-compliant behaviour. However many times the audits are just looking at comparisons across years and it becomes a number game.
Ethics Resource centre in their annual survey found that 41% of US workers said that they observed unethical or illegal misconduct on the job. Not all of those incidents were major acts of wrongdoing however ethical lapses tend to snowball. And without training we all know the way down the ‘slippery slope’.
Q: The ethical values that are flaunted by some big corporations and are also flouted by those very organisations. Is ethics relevant to the corporate world at all? Has ethics remained relevant in the post-COVID scenario?
It sounds and looks good to have values stating ethics and integrity for organisations.
A large organisation which has been seriously affected by their unethical behaviour started doing a lot of training on ethics to recover from the situation. In fact this is the common approach. If the organisations had spent a quarter of what they spend post the scandal- they may not have reached this point.
They asked me what are the examples of wrongdoing in their kind of industry and I mentioned ‘Yours is the organisation I talk of’. This was received with silence. My question to them was ‘Do you have a zero tolerance policy?’ and they stated we do believe in zero tolerance however we don’t have it stated clearly. So the answer is ‘No’.
I don’t think this organisation has really learned and they may slip again.
In the current situation I still don’t know how many organisations have stood grounded and not let ethics flounder. Time will show. How salary cuts, layoffs etc have been handled is a reflection of ethics for the particular organisation. It has been challenging for both the employers and employees.
Q: Do films raise a question of ethics? Which are they? Tell us more.
Films are an interesting medium for shaping a community. Many movies show us the wrongs that have happened and some ask questions that make us think.
I remember writing in my blog ‘Airlift your Emotions’ after seeing the movie Airlift a couple of years ago. I felt Akshay Kumar had evolved over the years in the kind of movies he chose to be a part of. Right now when he contributed 25 crores during the COVID Pandemic it reinforced my thinking that real and reel life seems intertwined.
Privileged to be familiar with the work of V Shantaram. The filmmaker chose movies with a message, from Dahej which initiated the dowry act to Aadmi. To Duniya na Mane about a young girl forced to marry an older man.To the landmark film, Do Ankhein Barah Haath that looks at human treatment for criminal reforms and beautifully gets across the message of Transformational Leadership. He never played to the gallery and focused on creating movies with a message to do right.
I have previously used the various themes in the movie ‘The Social Network’ to discuss ethics including dilemmas on personal privacy, to issues of trust and betrayal.
Sophie’s Choice, a movie wherein she was forced to choose which of her two children would be gassed and which one would proceed to the labour camp else both the children would be killed at Auschwitz.
The movie Whistleblower about the UN peacekeeping forces in Bosnia has been one of the most powerful and inspiring films for me.
Vivek S Patwardhan
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