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Gamification: Sway the Morally Gray Employee

Picture a moral scale. At one end are those who will never cross the ethical line no matter what. At the other end, there will be those who look for every opportunity to do wrong.

Most people fall somewhere in the middle. These “gray” employees have never had their ethics tested at work or don’t have a strong moral compass, but they can be influenced the most. Chief learning officers can help ensure these employees choose the right path.

Whether ethics training happens in an in-class training session or online, the information doesn’t stick if it’s a one-time event. Employees may find themselves bending the rules, unless they receive continual training about how to respond to an ethical dilemma.

One way some organizations reinforce ethical behavior is by role-playing morally challenging situations that employees could experience. Brooke Deterline, founder of the ethics training organization Courageous Leadership, offers corporate ethics workshops for organizations, including Google. She said role-playing allows employees to “strengthen their moral muscle,” increasing the likelihood employees will take the right action, even when they are under stress.

But although this approach can help, it also falls short. Without continued exposure to this type of ethics training, employees won’t keep this information top of mind in the long term. Yet, the high costs associated with organizing frequent in-person training events means this type of reinforcement isn’t feasible for most companies. Further, as new employees join the organization, they may have to wait for a formal event before they can receive this type of ethics reinforcement.

Employee theft represents 41% of inventory shrink for U.S. retailers, which translates into an annual hit to the bottom line of $18.1 billion – 2012 National Retail Security Survey

Gamification can help to create lasting moral behavior change. Applying game mechanics — such as earning points, overcoming challenges and receiving badges and awards — supports employees’ natural desire for competition, achievement and recognition. Employees can participate in a short periods of daily game play while questions pop up to reinforce ethics training.

Because gamified learning is fun, it ties ethics learning to a feeling of enjoyment. So, when employees recall the information they’ve learned, it triggers a pleasant emotional response — one of the surest methods to shift attitudes and ingrain ethical behavior when confronted with challenging situations.

Take Pep Boys, for example. The automotive aftermarket retail chain knew ongoing reminders to its 19,000 employees to do the right thing were critical to reinforce its loss prevention training.

The company decided to implement a gamified e-learning program to continually reinforce corporate policies around loss prevention. For 30 to 90 seconds each day, associates answered quick, targeted questions related to their training. The system then repeated questions at various intervals until associates demonstrated mastery of corporate ethics topics.

The effect was phenomenal. Not only did overall shrink rates drop, but also Pep Boys saw a significant increase in calls to its employee theft hotline.

Whether associates have been with the retailer for years or have just joined, everyone receives consistent training through the gamified e-learning platform. This ensures all Pep Boys associates get the information they need upfront, as well as continued exposure to help them do the right thing when faced with a moral dilemma on the job.

Because ethical dilemmas aren’t always black and white, it’s even more important for managers to clarify the issues, give employees opportunities to strengthen their moral muscles, and help them gain the confidence to act correctly. After all, eliminating the many shades of gray via continual learning increases the likelihood that “gray” employees won’t slide to the wrong end of the moral scale.