Can You Teach Ethics?



Bruce Dorris, J.D., CFE, CPA

ACFE Program Director

Recently, I was camping with my family and our scout troop at a state park here in Texas. Late on a Saturday afternoon, we noticed a truck drive by with the windows down. I could hear the loud 80s hair-band music blaring before even seeing the truck. Of course, as luck would have it, they pulled into the campsite right next to ours.

So instead of a peaceful, calm evening under the stars making s‘mores, I expected a night of bass-thumping stereos and wild parties. But I was wrong – dead wrong. Much to my surprise, by 10 p.m. all music stopped and all lanterns turned off. In fact, it was my kids who were the loudest at that point.

It made me think: though I was unaware of any specific rule on a lights out-noise off policy in the Texas state park system, there is an unwritten rule or code of conduct that most campers follow:  Enjoy the parks, but respect others in the process.

I thought of this recent episode when I looked at the topic of the panel I will moderate at the ACFE Annual Fraud Conference: Can You “Teach” Ethics? I started to wonder, do we actually teach ethics when we conduct ethics training? Does a corporate code of ethics actually teach someone ethical behavior?

Just as treating your neighbors as you would like to be treated is an unwritten, learned behavior; so is ethical behavior. Ethics is about character. Written rules and codes go only so far. We can have all the internal controls in the world, but management may still have the opportunity to override them. What used to be a handshake on principal is now a team of lawyers and contracts – a very rules-oriented approach.

So, can we teach ethics? It is a very interesting question that will no doubt give way to plenty of debate. Our panel consists of folk from industry, public accounting and academia — a broad mix of experts to give their opinions on this important issue. It will be interesting to see what experiences the participants have had regarding ethics training and education.

If you are at the conference and free on Wednesday morning, stop by and throw in your opinion too. I would love to hear what you think. See you there.

View a full list of session topics at the upcoming ACFE Annual Fraud Conference here.