Ethical Leadership Starts at the Top 21:03, August 28, 2016

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Ethical Leadership Starts at the Top

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According to McClatchyDC, the US State Department could not provide records showing whether Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her top aides completed mandatory ethics training while they were working for the State Department.

In December 2015 the Republican National Committee (RNC) made a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to discover whether certain individuals connected to Clinton, and Clinton herself, had taken required annual online ethics training. When the FOIA produced no results, the RNC filed a lawsuit to obtain the documents, saying that it was trying to determine whether there were “blurred lines between the State Department and Clinton’s private organizations.

Although the Ethics in Government Act requires annual ethics training for employees who have to file financial disclosure reports, the State Department’s records did not verify whether all of the named employees had taken the ethics training for new employees or the annual training for existing employees. But the records don’t indicate whether all of the employees were required to take such training, and some employees may have taken the training, despite the absence of documentation.

The issue of ethics training has been in the news because of questions about conflicts of interest concerning the Clinton Foundation, such as whether donors “had the potential to gain from their Clinton connections.” 

Ethics training tries to prevent not just unethical conduct itself, but the appearance of unethical conduct or impropriety that can undermine the effectiveness of an organization. But training alone doesn’t help people to make ethical decisions. Organizations have to create a culture of compliance, and they have to be willing to enforce it with messages from the top. In May 2016, when a federal judge ordered Department of Justice attorneys to attend additional ethics training because of misrepresentations the attorneys made to the court and opposing counsel, he said that “whatever it is that the Department of Justice Office of Professional Responsibility has been doing, it has not been effective.”

The National Business Ethics Survey found that 87% of employees report wrongdoing if their company has an effective ethics and compliance program, while only 32% report if they work for companies that lack such programs. But the way that leaders act is even more important. The survey found that “the most significant factor in ethical leadership is employees’ perception of their leaders’ personal character. Leaders who demonstrate they are ethical people with strong character have a much greater impact on worker behavior than deliberate and visible efforts to promote ethics.”

LawRoom provides online compliance training to thousands of companies and universities. To learn more about ethics in the workplace, check out this white paper on ethics.

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Christine Day
Christine Day is a legal editor at EverFi. She writes about employment law issues and tracks case law and legislative and regulatory updates. Before joining EverFi she worked in legal publishing, researching and writing about tax law, business law, and employment law. She earned her JD from the University of San Diego Law School and her BA from the University of Southern California.

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