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'Idol'-izing Ethics

'Idol'-izing Ethics | Human Resource Executive Online Learn how a televised singing contest helped Cisco Systems Inc. engage its worldwide workforce on ethics training, and have a little fun to boot.

Saturday, May 16, 2009
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When Cisco Systems Inc. looked at the results of an employee pulse survey in 2006 and decided to revamp the ethics and compliance program for its 65,000 worldwide employees, none of those employees knew at the time that their solution would ultimately mirror a show on prime-time television.

But Jeremy Wilson, the ethics office manager at the San Jose, Calif.-based technology provider, says something had to be done because the company's ethics training and compliance programs were as dry as the desert.

"Historically, it was a one-way street," he says. "We were cramming [ethics and compliance] information down employees' throats."

And given the fact that many thousands of Cisco employees are tech-savvy engineers who are more comfortable figuring things out for themselves than having information drilled into their heads, the old model of in-person training accompanied by PowerPoint presentations was not a viable option.

"Engineers like to walk through things and figure it out on their own," he says.

So Cisco decided to find a way to speak specifically to the kinds of ethical situations its employees face on a day-to-day basis by using a model that incorporated both the content they were looking for and an attractive vehicle to deliver it.

The result, created through a partnership with Norcross, Ga.-based information-collection company The Network, was Ethics Idol, an interactive, educational Flash module based on the popular television singing contest, American Idol.

Since the module was rolled out in July 2007, employees have been able to view four cartoon "contestants" in vocal parodies on the company's intranet, with each contestant telling the tale of a different sticky ethical situation, followed by the decisions of the three judges, a la American Idol.

After viewing, employees are asked to vote on which of the three judges gave the most appropriate response to each situation, and voters can instantly see how their vote matched up companywide. Cisco's ethics office then weighs in at the end of each episode to give the correct answer based on the company's official ethics and compliance standards.

"It's a very serious topic, but put across to the employees in a very engaging way," says Ralston McCracken, vice president of sales and business development at The Network. "We wanted to communicate that ethics are important throughout the organization."

To date, the four episodes have not only been viewed and voted on by more than 10,000 Cisco employees, but have also won The Network a 2008 American Business Award in the Interactive Media Professional Education category. And thanks to its ability to easily change the language it is broadcast in, Ethics Idol is being rolled out to Cisco employees in more than 40 countries where the company has offices, in the hope of teaching even more employees to learn about the company's ethical standards.

"Being a technology company, our employees love using the newest technology," says Wilson. "Ethics Idol presents a virtual case to the viewers, and allows them to make their own decisions. It really sets the new trend of training in motion.

"Historically, no one had done anything like this, affiliating ethics and compliance with pop culture and what people are doing after hours," he says.

Making an Idol

Corporate social responsibility is something that is not taken lightly at Cisco, as demonstrated by its track record. Cisco is a "repeat performer" on Corporate Responsibility Officer's "100 Best Corporate Citizens" list, published by the business-ethics publication. In the nine years that the list has been tabulated, Cisco is one of only three companies that has appeared on the list every year.

So it presented quite a challenge to Wilson while he pored over the results of the 2006 pulse survey that touched on ethics training and compliance issues, and found that the feedback could be succinctly summed up in five words: Training is boring and dry.

"Interesting, engaging and fun was the goal for the new training model," says Wilson. "Completely the opposite of what we were doing."

Cisco decided to work with The Network, based partly on the fact that the two were already partners on an in-house, Sarbanes Oxley-mandated ethics and compliance hotline program that handles Cisco employees' reports on possible ethical and compliance violations.

The Network's mPower Communications agency quickly realized Cisco was looking for an ongoing campaign, rather than a singular program, to keep an ethical culture at the top of employees' minds, and embarked on a discovery phase in order to better understand the demographics of Cisco's workforce, its existing methods of communications and its specific communications objectives.

It was during this time that American Idol was enjoying a tremendous amount of exposure, averaging more than 20 million viewers per episode, so the creative team at mPower decided to hitch its new project to that rising star.

The result? Instead of Ryan Seacrest, Cisco's employees are guided through the training modules by his cartoon doppelganger, Brian Sweatervest, while the judges' names and appearances mildly resemble the famous (and infamous) judges of the real Fox television show.

Ralston says the central themes of the song parodies were "things specific to the organization. For example, international trade regulations and how Cisco wants its employees to approach them" needed to be highlighted, as well as chain-of-command issues when reporting malfeasance or harassment.

"The songs, even the tunes themselves, are linked to the ethical dilemma," says Ralston, who adds that the parodies were intentionally written "vaguely to make employees really think about things," and were penned in such a way as to avoid copyright infringement suits from the original artists. (See sidebar for more on the songs.)

"There's a lot of variety put in to the three-and-a-half-minute-long episodes, but it's not put across in a pure code-of-conduct kind of way," says Ralston.

Counting the Votes

In the long run, "Ethics Idol really accomplished what Cisco was looking for," says Gabriel Romero, marketing director for The Network. "It really opened up a way for the ethics office to speak to employees and get that information out there and answer questions they might have."

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The Ethics Idol program was a successful vehicle to not only get Cisco employees to learn more about ethics and compliance, but to give the company momentum when it decided to rewrite its Code of Business Conduct in more simple and clear language, says Romero.

Again with the help of mPower Communications, Cisco's new code was introduced shortly after Ethics Idol was rolled out, and within 10 weeks, 99.6 percent of Cisco employees certified that they had received and read the new document. A survey of employees found that 94 percent agreed that the new code was easy to read, and 95 percent agreed that it was easy to comprehend.

"It's difficult to say Ethics Idol did this or that," Wilson says, "but, slowly, we are increasing the visibility of the ethics office. And it's gotten people excited about ethics. A number of people have asked us to do additional modules. It's been a huge hit with new hires because we do trainings with them, and we always show them the modules."

HR executives who are involved in ethics training at their companies "need to be forward-thinking," Wilson says. "Take a look at the tools that are out there. Look at what your employees are doing out of work, and leverage that."

Christopher Bauer, a business ethics consultant and owner of Nashville, Tenn.-based Bauer Ethics Seminars, says Cisco's program could prove to be the template for other companies to follow because current solutions are lacking in the excitement category.

"Employees have had mind-numbing experiences with ethics training, to the point that announcing a voluntary ethics-training program is the best way to clear a room because people have understandably come to expect the worst," Bauer says. "So, the fact that [Cisco is] doing something new is helpful."

He adds that he was "pleasantly surprised to see [the company] clearly put thought into making the situations complicated, like they are in the real world. Too often, the ethics examples are so cut-and-dried that they don't really ask the viewers to think too deeply."

When asked if he thinks the cartoonish nature of the media would distract employees from the seriousness of the message, Bauer says he thinks it's a wash.

"There are people who will be dismissive because it is a cartoon, but there's also probably a raft of people who like it because of that format," he says. "Although they are caricatures of the [American Idol] panel stylistically, it's not done in a cartoonish way."

But in the real world, he says, "we have to learn to quickly recognize and deal with ethical dilemmas. So far, my experience is that the technology doesn't allow us to do that terribly well. We're getting better, and this program is evidence of that, but it's no substitute for live, highly interactive ethics training."

Cisco's Wilson agrees, to an extent.

"Everything [training-related] is going two ways now," he says. "Between videos and blogs, we are engaging with employees in a way that causes them to think, not just absorb things in a stale or static manner. . . . Ethics Idol helped raise awareness among Cisco's employees that each ethical dilemma is not always cut-and-dried."

Despite the positive internal response, Wilson says, the best evidence of Ethics Idol's success, especially at a tech-heavy company like Cisco, is when he heard from the toughest critics of all.

"The engineers loved it," he says, "and when you have engineers coming up and giving you 'props,' that's when you know you've succeeded."

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