Not long ago, ethics training was the exception rather than the rule in corporate America. Now, the majority of companies — 69 percent compared to just 37 percent in 1994, according to the Ethics Resource Center, Washington, D.C. — delivers this kind of training to employees.

The increase is primarily due to more small companies (those with fewer than 10,000 employees) establishing ethics training programs, says Patricia Harned, ERC president. Most large companies — particularly publicly traded companies — have had them in place for a while. The heightened focus on corporate responsibility after several high-profile accounting scandals has sparked this huge increase, she says. Also contributing to the spike is the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002, which established internal control standards for corporate accounting.

According to the center's just-released National Business Ethics survey, 87 percent of large companies (more than 10,000 employees) and 82 percent of public companies train workers in ethics, compared to just 55 percent of private companies. Sarbanes-Oxley regulations are a big reason for the differential, says Harned. “Sarbanes-Oxley is definitely being heeded faster by publicly traded organizations, so it's clear that they're very motivated to do ethics training.”

Meetings + Online

Often, ethics training serves to drive home an organization's code of conduct, which may range from conflicts of interest to sexual harassment.

While the survey did not poll companies on how they deliver ethics training, online e-learning programs tend to have a different focus from live, instructor-led sessions. “E-learning tends to be very compliance-based,” Harned says, and is most effective when the ethical guidelines are clear and compliance is straightforward. But when it's an ethical question with gray areas — such as accepting gifts or dealing with outside contractors — a live meeting is a better way to hammer the policy home. A session in which employees can play out scenarios and openly discuss ethical issues is a more effective way for employees to grasp complex dilemmas. “A situation becomes ethical if the outcome of your decision impacts someone else, so to just be looking at a computer screen to talk about ethics is kind of limited,” she says.

Most companies agree that the best programs incorporate both e-learning and live meetings. E-learning is a good tool to tutor and test employees on the basic ethics standards of the company. “But then also do some kind of hands-on training that helps them look at ethical decision making,” says Harned.

There are generally three ways to deliver live ethics training. Companies can hire an outside company; tap a consultant to train the managers, who subsequently train their direct reports; or hire a consultant to train in-house staff in ethics education. It's rare for a company to have an ethics trainer on staff.

Most ethics training programs, particularly in large organizations, are held at company offices, so there is no need to book an off-site venue. However, there are some keys to planning these programs, says Harned. For starters, keep it short. Employees will get bored and tune out. A meeting that lasts around two hours is typically most effective.

Planners should also avoid cramming everything into one annual session. “A one-hit wonder training program once a year is effective in making employees know that they've had training, but it doesn't necessarily help them come away feeling like ethics is a major priority at the company,” states Harned. Employees need year-round reinforcement of ethical standards through a variety of channels: training, e-learning programs, regular discussions with managers, employee communiqués, and staff meetings.