What the Army Can Teach Us about Corporate Culture

An ethical workforce translates into lower risks of workplace misconduct. Train employees to act ethically, just like they do in the military.

Posted by Dawn Lomer in Ethics & Compliance, Human Resources on June 14th, 2012

A gun is a powerful tool that can be used for good or evil, so you’d better be sure when you place one in someone’s hands that they are going to use it for the right purpose. The US Army knows this well, and its training programs for ensuring soldiers act for good, rather than evil, are exemplary.

The ability to elicit ethical decisions from soldiers who are under pressure is an example of the military’s effective training program.
Business can learn a lot from the military about teaching employees to act ethically, says Stuart Yoak, PhD, Executive Director of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics, an international organization advancing scholarship, education and the practical application of ethics in business, government, and the professions. The ability to elicit ethical decisions from soldiers who are under pressure is an example of the military’s effective training program, he says.

“They know that they have to instill in their soldiers the capacity to make decisions under extreme conditions of pressure, anxiety and potential loss of life,” he says. “The stakes are higher than anything most of us ever will face. They have to make those decisions with a very limited amount of information and they have to make them almost instantaneously. They have the same three critical factors employees face in business decision making – severity, lack of information and lack of time.”

Importance of Teamwork

Teamwork, says Yoak, is a big part of the program’s success. “They’re trying to create that esprit de corps; that sense that my capacity to be successful depends on the soldier on my left and the soldier on my right working collaboratively together. So a key part of their effectiveness is their ability to build the concept of teamwork, where we all matter, we all count, we all have to contribute, everybody has a role to play.”

It’s a universal concept that has proven effective in sports and in war, but can it work in other areas? “These are the kind of qualities we want out of any ethics program. And although we hope none of us ever have to be put in harm’s way in the work we do, the lessons we can learn from that, I think, are really quite significant.”

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Corporate America has already borrowed some training concepts from Army training, points out Yoak. Companies send employees on retreats and give them team-building exercises, many of them physical and reminiscent of military obstacle course training. The goal of these retreats is to build trust, alliance and collaboration.

Creating Leaders

One of the defining qualities of the Army’s training program, though, is its ability to groom leaders who can influence and uphold an ethical culture.

“In times of crisis, no matter how good the team is, someone has to step forward as the leader. And if the assigned leader’s not there because something has happened, every one of the individuals has to have the capacity to become a leader. So one of the things that I think makes their training so exciting from an ethics perspective, is that they’re not just training someone to be collaborative, they’re also training someone to take that leadership role,” says Yoak.

Honor and Values

Other key points in military training are the concepts of honor and service to one’s country.

“Honor is about moral character,” says Yoak. “When a person gives of themselves or when someone steps out and becomes a leader, we honor their integrity. The other part is service to the public good; service to the country. And that commitment, frankly, is what I believe enables soldiers to put themselves in harm’s way. It’s not them seeking the honor , it’s the fact that they’re serving their country. Businesses can incorporate these same moral qualities of personal integrity and service to the community in their corporate ethics training programs.”

Ethics Under Pressure

So how does this relate to business and creating an ethical workforce that makes the right decisions consistently, with conviction?

“I think in business we face critical decisions where we don’t have all the information we need. In facing those decisions we’re under a significant amount of pressure, job pressure, corporation pressure, lots of deadlines. How then, in the midst of all of that, do we help employees make the wise ethical choice?” asks Yoak.

“Part of the task is helping employees recognize, much like the military, that it is a team effort. Everybody has a role to play, everybody has a contribution to make, and by working  collaboratively together we accomplish far more in serving our customers and the communities where we live and work,” he says.

“Businesses that take ethics seriously are the places where the most talented and highly motivated employees want to work, and they are the companies customers, investors and communities want to support.”

Dawn Lomer
Dawn Lomer

Managing Editor

Dawn Lomer is the managing editor at i-Sight Software and a Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE). She writes about topics related to workplace investigations, ethics and compliance, data security and e-discovery, and hosts i-Sight webinars.