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ATD Blog

Ethics Isn’t a Box to Check Once a Year

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The December 2020 National Law Review article “Corporate Compliance: 10 Keys to a Successful Program” emphasizes the importance of a corporate compliance program:

A robust compliance program within a corporation is a critical component of business operations. It is responsible for detecting, preventing, remedying, and monitoring misconduct. Maintaining an effective compliance program serves as ample evidence that the corporation is in full compliance with the law and intends to follow it.

A code of ethics outlines how an organization intends to act ethically and with integrity. While it may not be the talent development team’s responsibility to create a code of ethics (CoE), TD practitioners can help ensure that employees understand what is contained within the CoE and what it means for them. In “Operationalize a Code of Ethics,” Robbi-Lynn Watnik explains that this is not a one-and-done type of training. Rather, this is an ongoing process, something for which TD practitioners can use a toolkit of development and communication resources throughout the year.

What’s in a Code of Ethics?

A code of ethics usually begins with a note from the CEO or someone of similar stature committing the organization to doing business in an ethical manner. The CoE then covers the company’s mission, values, and vision before specifically addressing its compliance program. Compliance topics often include integrity, nondiscrimination, privacy, and conflicts of interest. The CoE also covers the consequences of not complying with the standards.

Watnik states that the process of creating and implementing a code should be led by one person, but the process is not a one-person job. “While senior leadership sets the organization’s overriding values,” he says, “articulating the nuances of those values requires input from leaders at other levels, such as department heads. Input from frontline employees may also be helpful. Those individuals form the CoE team.”


What Do People Need to Know?

It bears noting that even for TD professionals it’s critical to understand your audience when thinking about a CoE and training. The organization’s board needs to be aware of what’s in the code and undergo a short training, but board members don’t need to get a tutorial into the details. Many organizations post their code to their public-facing website; volunteers and vendors too should learn about the CoE’s contents.

Employees will need a much greater amount of training and more often. But employees are not monolithic. Finance professionals are likely to need a deeper dive into the possibility of financial improprieties while HR staff need to know the details of discriminatory practices. The format of training also may vary. Consider deskless employees, for one.

Identifying Development Opportunities

While onboarding isn’t the only place to relay what’s in, and the importance of, complying with companys’ ethical standards, it is an important one. Because the new hire is receiving a lot of information during orientation, keep the information about the CoE at a high level, covering its broader points.


Many companies have annual training. This is also a chance to discuss the code of ethics. During onboarding and annual training, it’s helpful to make note of the training in the employee’s HR record. Include topics covered and length of training.

Compliance training is too easily pushed to the wayside when other requests for employee training arise. Creating a calendar for events and communication efforts throughout the year will keep the CoE front and center for the TD team and employees. Get creative with events. November includes Corporate Compliance and Ethics Week, for example. In June, you could plan a picnic with a game around some aspect of compliance and ethics.

Use the array of communication vehicles at your fingertips to remind employees about the importance of ethics. This could be by way of a short post or story in the company newsletter or intranet, visual reminders if employees are on-site, or a message from a senior leader during a town hall.

What’s in It for Employees?

Employees will take compliance and ethics training seriously if managers and leaders take it seriously. It’s beneficial that senior leaders show up at training or team meetings where the CoE is discussed. A manager should give their direct reports time for training and discuss it afterward, perhaps at their weekly one-on-one meeting. Managers should be available for questions or concerns their direct reports may have about something they’ve seen or heard, such as a potential impropriety.

Further, employees should understand how important it is that they abide by the code and the repercussions for not doing so, including the possibility of dismissal depending on the infraction. Regular training and attention to a code of ethics will help create an organizational culture that embraces and values compliance.

About the Author

Patty Gaul is a senior writer/editor for the Association for Talent Development (ATD).

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