Ethics Training Refresher

The California Senate recently put itself in time-out while senators, committee staff, and Capitol office employees participated in an all-day ethics training session. Darryl Steinberg, the state senate leader, postponed all committee hearings scheduled for April 23 to permit the training to occur.

It is unusual, and undoubtedly disruptive, for any organization to cancel a day of regular business in favor of ethics training, but sometimes it is necessary to send a strong message. Despite the fact that California schedules its state senators to attend ethics training every two years, it felt compelled to do more this year.

The California Senate scheduled the training in response to a series of scandals – a handful of state senators and lobbyists face criminal charges for misdeeds that range from weapons trafficking to bribery and unlawful fundraising. Consequently, senate leader Steinberg called for the senate to take a deeper look at its culture and set aside a day for refresher training. (Hrabe, 2014)

Reportedly, attendees heard a presentation about creating an ethical culture and examined hypothetical scenarios on ethical and legal issues. Hypothetical scenarios, especially if drawn from actual experiences, generate useful discussions that help attendees re-focus on their ethical options and decisions. Here is one example of several that the California senators addressed: (Smith, 2014)

“Senator publishes Top 10 items on his personal bucket list on Facebook.  Lobbyist Employer’s government affairs representative who is a Facebook friend of the Senator sees the Facebook posting and posts the following FB message, ‘We can help you achieve #8.  Like our FB page.  Hope you can support our bill!!

What should Senator do?

a)  Unfriend the Lobbyist Employer’s representative?

b)  Post a denial message on Facebook?

c)  Contact the U.S. Attorney?

d)  Communicate disapproval by other medium to the Lobbyist Employer’s representative.”

Most organizations offer some form of regular ethics training; the California Senate is no exception. Senators attend ethics training every two years, and the state requires lobbyists to attend an ethics course each legislative session.

However, like the California Senate, organizations sometimes fall afoul of their own policies and of external requirements. Leaders should want to send a strong and immediate message. The California Senate leader did it with an all-day ethics “stand down.” What would you do?

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Hrabe, John. “State Senate postpones committee hearings, schedules ethics training for April 23.” blog, April 23, 2014.

Smith, Dan. “California Senators’ Ethics Scenarios: What Would You Do?” CapitolAlert blog, April 23, 2014.