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What’s the point of an ethics course?

Research shows that regular ethics training helps. O'Riordan Images, CC BY-NC

What’s the point of an ethics course?

Earlier in March, news broke that the White House had declined to award a contract for an ethics course aimed at senior staffers, Cabinet nominees and others holding political appointments in the Trump administration.

The decision made news because the Trump administration was already under fire for alleged ethical lapses. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned after allegedly failing to disclose information about his lobbying work and his communications with Russia; Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from investigations into Russian interference with the election after news stories revealed that he had also met with Russian officials; and the United States Office of Government Ethics recommended that the White House consider disciplinary action against adviser Kellyanne Conway for using her position to endorse Ivanka Trump’s branded merchandise.

President Trump’s team recently nixed a White House ethics course. AP Photo/Alex Brandon

Media reports said the Trump team saw the decision to scrap the ethics training, previously adopted by both the Bush and Obama administrations, as improving efficiency: the program was estimated to cost one million dollars, and could be seen as wasteful because staff had already been through ethics training before the inauguration.

A White House spokesperson responding to the news reports stated that the White House would continue to provide direct instruction on the standards the officials were expected to follow.

I am a scholar of legal ethics who has studied ethical decision-making in the political sphere. My research suggests that when individuals are blinded by an unconscious partisan bias – such as highly committed presidential staff in the White House – it can result in a failure to recognize ethical issues. They may act in ways that accidentally undermine their own political interests.

Ethics courses, in other words, can make a difference.

Here’s how this works

Attorneys, for example, often overestimate the strength of their client’s position. A sense of kinship between attorney and client can be good to the extent that the attorney is able to see through the client’s eyes and work toward the client’s goals.

But this same closeness can hurt the client when it goes too far – the attorney can come to share the client’s blind spots. My research suggested that such partisan bias likely played a role in the Enron collapse, as legal advisers may have been too close to management to be able to offer the kind of neutral advice needed to identify the risks to the company.

I also argue that a similar dynamic was at play in the administration of President George W. Bush, when legal and political advisers drafted the so-called “Torture Memos.” These memos, drafted in 2002, purported to analyze what types of interrogation would be allowed under the Geneva Convention. They adopted a very narrow definition of “torture,” ultimately concluding that activities traditionally considered unlawful torture could be legally implemented in the post-9/11 landscape. The memos were heavily criticized from both the left and the right, and were later withdrawn.

This problem of partisan bias is a common one. It has even become something of a cliché. Whenever a governmental or business scandal arises, one of the first questions asked is “Where were the lawyers?” And perhaps counterintuitively, the problem only increases the higher an individual rises within a partisan group – it gets more difficult to see oneself through the eyes of outsiders.

There are many such high-profile cases, from the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s to an ongoing Volkswagen investigation over false emissions data. In all these cases, highly educated advisers, hired to make sure legal and ethical rules were followed, overlooked obvious red flags in practice.

The value of repetitive ethics training

My research suggests that regularly scheduled ethics training is beneficial even when it does not impart any new information, but merely emphasizes what employees already know.

What makes ethics training beneficial? Pamela Carls, CC BY

This is because, in most situations, ethical dilemmas arise not from a situation where someone did not know the ethical rules in the abstract. Instead, they arise when individuals are unable to identify the relevant ethical principle in the event of a crisis. The partisan bias is a stumbling block that makes it harder for people to analyze a situation neutrally and to identify the relevant legal or ethical requirements.

Other scholars have suggested that regularly scheduled ethics training can help people recognize ethical dilemmas.

In an article “Cultures of Compliance,” law professor Donald C. Langevoort writes that communication about ethical obligations must be “persistent, unambiguously tied to the real choices managers make on a day-to-day basis.”

Regularity of such communication is important. Merely hearing the rules a single time is not sufficient to be able to call on them in the heat of a crisis. Other organizational behavior researchers have found that timing matters in ethical decision-making.

Specifically, they found that the more time that elapses between thinking about ethical issues in the abstract and being confronted with a concrete ethical crisis, the more difficult it is for people to draw on their ethical understanding.

A mere one-time transmission of information about ethical obligations, in other words, is often not enough, especially if such training occurs long before the individual is confronted with an ethical dilemma.

By meeting regularly with others to discuss and consider the legal standards and ethical issues inherent in the professional context, individuals find that those issues become more salient – that is, they have a higher position in the individual’s conscious awareness, making it easier for the individual to recognize ethical dilemmas and to draw on that ethical training when confronted with such a dilemma.

The political benefit

All the evidence points to the fact that most people tend to interpret their own behavior in the best possible light, even when their actions appear to violate their own moral convictions.

This is especially true when people consider themselves to be fundamentally moral individuals, as most do. And this sympathetic view carries over to those with whom we identify and for whom we share affinity.

Breaking through this partisan bias requires the ability to see how choices are likely to look to outsiders – an important skill for individuals seeking political favor. Failing to do so can backfire.

Ethical criticisms of the Trump White House have ultimately taken both a political and business toll. Polling suggests that a majority of Americans have a negative perception of President Trump’s ethical compliance.

Ivanka Trump and her husband Jared Kushner. REUTERS/Jim Bourg

And after an initial sales spike, Ivanka Trump’s clothing brand continues to struggle. The White House sought to defend Kellyanne Conway’s statements by emphasizing that her endorsement of Ivanka Trump’s clothing line was merely “inadvertent,” made “without nefarious motive or intent to benefit personally” in an attempt “to stand up for a person she believed had been unfairly treated.”

The value of regular – and even repetitive – ethics training is to steer clear of just this type of “inadvertent” error. It can help individuals look beyond their own partisan biases and more clearly see how actions taken in the political sphere are likely to be perceived by outsiders.

Voters, after all, are outsiders. Responding to ethical challenges in a way that breaks through the partisan bubble and resonates with the larger population has significant political value.

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