Is Social Media a Good Fit for Ethics Training?

We’ve had some success recently using a “Discuss Online” feature in a recent course for one of our clients that allows students to respond to scenarios and questions online in a social environment, as opposed to just receiving “expert” feedback. They can debate the relative merits of different courses of action, share ideas, and learn from each other.  The most recent course in the series is on ethics, and all of a sudden, the desire to “go social” has run into a brick wall.

We’ve developed a lot of ethics training for our clients in recent years. In many ways, e-learning is a good fit for this and other compliance topics, especially since many companies are required to release new ethics content annually.  Ethics training would seem to be perfectly suited to a social learning environment; the issues are often complex, and “gray areas” abound. Peer-to-peer discussions seem ideally suited for exploring the nuances in this type of content.

Regardless of the topic, many companies are still struggling with the loss of control (real or perceived) of letting students interact via social media.  “What if someone says something inappropriate?”  “What if someone gives the wrong answer and everyone starts doing it that way?”  The pros and cons of these issues have been debated all over the blogosphere. But they seem to be magnified in the case of ethics training or any topic that has a significant risk, liability, safety, or other legal issue associated with it.

Why might social learning be treated differently with ethics training? I think there are three primary reasons:

  1. Liability: Many companies prefer not to know what an employee does or doesn’t know, believe, or think in regards to legally sensitive topics. That’s why some compliance training is very one-way:  We’ll tell you what you need to know, but we don’t want to know what you think about it. If we knew, we would possibly have to do something about it.  (In fact, some clients won’t even put a quiz into an ethics course. If an employee gets even one question wrong, the company could be liable for that employee’s infractions. “Your LMS report says he got those questions wrong. That means he didn’t fully understand the ethical implications, and you did nothing about it!”)
  2. The Party Line: Social learning might be fine for creative sales ideas or improving processes. After all, you are hopefully hiring bright employees whose ideas matter. But in the area of ethics there seems to be much more hesitation–only the expert feedback from headquarters will do when it comes to parsing ethical questions. If someone gives bad sales advice on a discussion board, you might lose out on a sale or two. If someone gives bad ethics advice, you might end up in court.
  3. The Electron Trail: Proponents of social learning argue that people are learning socially whether you like it or not. They are asking each other what to do and are sharing ideas over the water cooler. So why not make it easier with social learning? The difference is that with an online discussion board, you have an electronic paper trail. So when a topic, such as ethics, might lend itself to someone giving advice or an example that is unethical or even illegal, it can be used against you in a court of law.

Has your experience been similar? And if so, what have you done about it? Do we need to challenge knee-jerk reactions about social learning in ethics training, or is the risk really just too big to be worth it? Is a more traditional top-down approach best in this very sensitive area? We welcome your comments and insights.

Rod Jackson

2 Responses to “Is Social Media a Good Fit for Ethics Training?

  • Regarding the last item — many companies worry about this not only in light of legality, but in terms of spreading bad information or practice. The thing is, if online communities are being actively participated in by the appropriate people in the company, bad information can be corrected for everyone to see. That’s an opportunity that the ethics officer (or whoever the subject matter expert is) doesn’t have when things are left to the water cooler and, in the case of liability, it could actually be a positive thing.

    • To Judy’s point, there’s quite a bit of this in my organization. In part, I think it’s a conversation folks feel safer not engaging in. You won’t get answers to questions you never ask. Classic change resistance.

      My counter to this is the visibility of practices is important if we really care about how the folks in the organization connect to the org’s mission and business. The apprehension I see is just as prevalent in “non-legal” contexts.

      Even after describing the benefits of increased visibility, there’s still a strong resistance to opening up and exposing the relationships and connections at the deck-plate level.

      On the flip side of this, we’ve setup some closed group social interactions for ethics in the context of “gray area” critical thinking exercises and discussions. The organization is less resistant to walled garden types of deployments. Rarely do organizations want to open themselves up to potentially airing dirty laundry.

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