Chapter 11, The Ethics of Training


This chapter will help you

► understand ethics in training

► identify when to recommend training

► understand the confidentiality of individual employees when conducting assessments

► recognize responsibilities regarding plagiarism and copyright with training materials


Ethics on the job may be a hot training topic, but we are convinced that it should also be a hot trainer topic. In this chapter we would like to talk about what we consider to be the role of ethics from a trainer perspective, rather than as a topic for training.

Common Ethical Concerns

Perhaps the biggest ethical dilemma we face as trainers is the decision to make recommendations that might not call for training. If our job description says that we should do training, then we are caught in an ethical dilemma if, in fact, training might not be called for. We would be no better than the physician who makes an inaccurate diagnosis calling for surgery and then performs it.

Suppose we determine that an organization has a problem of leadership in management positions. Should we recommend that we train the managers or tell the CEO that two managers were identified as ineffectual? We suggest that you spell out the alternatives to the CEO, and let that person make the decision. A few years ago, we identified a specific manager who was ineffective. The CEO valued that employee and chose to have all managers go through a training program rather than fire the ineffective individual. We gave the client the options and let him (in this case) make the decision. This, then, is one of the biggest dilemmas we have to face as trainers.

A corollary dilemma is making a non-training recommendation beyond our expertise. In the above example did we have the expertise to tell the CEO to fire the two managers? Probably not; that should be his or her decision. We have the expertise to make a judgment as to whether someone is an effective communicator or manager and nothing more. In one assessment that we did a few years ago, we determined that the top three levels of management were ineffective. We did not recommend termination but made our recommendations for training and organizational change. As it turned out, the Board of Directors ultimately chose to terminate all of them rather than reorganize or train. We may have agreed but it was beyond our expertise to tell them to terminate.

We are of a mind that we have an obligation to report what is and hope that there will be enough opportunities for us to do training or, if not, to expand our job so that it incorporates more than the training function that we’ve described throughout the book. We make our livings conducting training for a variety of clients, so we walk a fine line when we make an assessment for an organization, and then propose that we conduct the training. We are telling them what is wrong and that we can fix it with training.

A second ethical concern emerged previously when we talked about doing a needs assessment and reporting that assessment in written or oral form. The ethical issue comes up as we try to balance the presentation of information and the maintenance of confidentiality. Not asking for names or other identifying information may not ensure confidentiality. One of our students, when doing a needs assessment, reported that the supervisor stood over each employee while the questionnaire was being completed and then collected each one. Confidential? Probably not! Did the student get accurate information? No. Interviews with employees indicated they were afraid to give an accurate picture of the company for fear the supervisor would see their comments. We must protect individuals when they respond to us. We are convinced that confidentiality must be maintained or our integrity as trainers and human resource people will be seriously jeopardized. We have an obligation, on the one hand, to report as fully as we can on the issues and concerns that emerge. We have the further obligation, however, of presenting the report in such a way that information can be brought to light without exposing specific individuals to whom we have promised anonymity.

We recommend that you not report data if it will isolate a small number of persons within the organization. For example, if a department has nine females and only one male, you should not report gender differences. Examine each comparison point to see if it will isolate and thus identify individuals. If it does, you are violating confidentiality.

A third ethical dilemma can arise when doing a needs assessment for a CEO or other top management person. Suppose a CEO hired you to find out why production was off and turnover was high. Your needs assessment turned up reasons which, “when corrected,” would aid management but might hinder the employee. What should you do? Should you go ahead and make the recommendation to the detriment of the employees? You should know up front what implications there may be from an assessment. Are you willing to make a report that will cost employees their jobs? Are you willing to tell the CEO that she or he is the problem? Your obligation is to complete an accurate assessment regardless of the outcome. If you cannot do so, you are better off not accepting the assignment. No textbook can provide all the answers for you, but we hope you will deal with these questions when appropriate.

We have resolved these questions for ourselves by being very selective about our clients. We attempt to learn as much as we can about the corporate philosophy before we agree to a project. We have that opportunity because we have been working in training for a number of years. For those who might now be wondering: yes, we have said no to clients because of issues regarding management philosophy.

Training Materials

While we personally have never been concerned that others use training materials that we develop and present, we would certainly feel that, as trainers, we have an ethical obligation to point out when we are using materials developed by other people, and would encourage full compliance with copyright and use procedures on all instruments designed for needs assessment or training. We’ve seen numerous examples of tests that are so similar to something that has been copyrighted by someone else with no credit given to the original source. That’s not to say that there are not materials out there that have been used in so many different ways that the original source may be totally obscure or forgotten. On the other hand, when the source is known, it’s our responsibility to credit that source or even seek permission if we are going to use the materials on a wholesale basis.

This problem extends to the use of computer software that is used in the development of the training materials. There are copyright laws concerning computer software that we recommend you read and follow. If you don’t have the manual for the software you may already be in conflict.


Finally, we have a moral, if not ethical, obligation to do our very best as trainers. There is no question that, historically, many training departments have served as dumping grounds for employees who really did not fit in or could not carry out their responsibilities in other departments. Putting such a person in training was a way of getting that individual out of the mainstream and out of the way of producing units within the organization. But training is too valuable to relegate to this kind of an individual, and we believe we have a moral obligation to make sure that we do our best to maintain the integrity of the training and development profession.

You have an obligation morally if not ethically to keep up to date. You should strive to keep current in your area of expertise. If you have been in a classroom where the instructor used the same old yellowed and tattered notes to lecture, you know what we mean. Clearly some training areas change more rapidly than others.

We have tried not to be too prescriptive in establishing a code for trainers, but that may be where the field is headed. In a survey conducted by the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts. 208 of the top 1000 companies within the United States reported having written codes of ethics, and 99 have formal training programs in the area of ethics. It is a growing concern and one in which we, as trainers, should be proactive rather than reactive. If we establish our ethical standards up front, there will be no need to come back and respond at a later date.

As we have, you must develop a personal code that you will follow as you move into the training field. Here are some guides that we follow as we perform assessments and training:

  1. We will not conduct assessments unless we have the cooperation of top management.
  2. We will not conduct training without the enthusiastic support of top management.
  3. We will not conduct training without the opportunity to observe and/or interview prospective trainees.
  4. We will not deliver a “canned” program for training.
  5. We will work with companies that have a positive regard for their employees.
  6. We will not cancel a training program because a better contract comes along.

Our intent is not to get you to follow our code but to recognize the need for a set of principles that you can follow comfortably. Following your own guidelines will help you avoid inconsistencies that could result in the loss of business, or even your job if you work in-house. Are our guidelines right for everyone? Not necessarily but they work for us.


As a trainer you have to be prepared to deal with ethical issues on several levels, including making nontraining recommendations, maintaining confidentiality, and determining when the implications (e.g. lost jobs) of doing an accurate needs assessment might preclude you from accepting the assignment. Moreover, trainers must exercise caution and good judgement when using training materials developed by others, particularly with regard to copyright infringement. Finally, trainers have a moral obligation to serve clients to the very best of their ability. This means keeping up-to­-date on developments in the field as well as establishing a personal code of conduct. By adhering to such principles, trainers help maintain the integrity of the training and development profession.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License

Communication Training and Development by William Arnold and Lynne McClure is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book