State tries to make ethics training more useful

URBANA – Lisa Dixon, a University of Illinois theater professor, recently completed the ethics training required of all UI employees. But she didn't find it helpful.

"It's incredibly common-sensical," she said.

All state workers, including UI employees, have to complete ethics training once a year. This is the second year it has been required.

The training was developed by the state inspector general. Employees complete the training online, reading three lessons, answering questions about the material, and taking a quiz at the end.

The lessons provide information about ethics laws and examples of how they may be applied, said Donna McNeely, the UI's ethics officer.

She said the quiz is 10 multiple-choice questions, and employees need to answer eight correctly.

Last year, the online training program was the same for all state agencies. This year, McNeely said, training for UI employees has focused on acceptance of gifts and conflicts of interest arising from outside research and business obligations.

"We provided feedback that we wanted training specific to academic institutions," she said. "Many of the ethical (conflicts) may be different than at other agencies."

Dixon said some scenarios in the training weren't applicable to most UI employees, such as whether to accept a gift from a contractor bidding on a UI job.

"Most of us are regular working stiffs at the university," she said. "We don't have big contractors offering us nights on the town. It's not even within the realm of possibility for the vast majority of us."

But Dixon said information on how to deal with a boss who is asking you to do something unethical could be helpful for some employees.

McNeely said the information provided in the training might not be obvious to all employees.

"It depends on your life experience and your work experience if you could take the quiz with no introductory material," McNeely said. "There is such a diverse population we work with for the training."

Linda Jackson, a graphic designer at the UI, said the training didn't teach her anything she didn't already know, but she said it was "not a bad idea."

"I think it is pretty much common sense, but I also think it is a good reminder of what is expected in the workplace, and it keeps you accountable for your own personal actions," Jackson said.

Everyone on the UI payroll must complete the training, from UI President B. Joseph White (who did his training on the first day) to the janitors cleaning the buildings. Permanent employees at the Urbana campus recently completed the training, and graduate student employees will be required to do so between late October and late November.

Undergraduate student workers and those working in temporary positions at the UI are provided a pamphlet that summarizes the law, and they sign a certificate showing they understand the document and know they must comply with it as a condition of their employment.

Dixon didn't think the training would change an employee's behavior.

"You can't really train ethics," she said. "You may be able to talk about it, but if somebody wants to be ethical, they will, and if they don't, they won't."

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