Are unethical people born that way, and can they be taught ethics?

Calvin London ( is the Founder & Principal Consultant of The Compliance Concierge, Perth, Western Australia, Australia.

I was watching a crime show recently that concluded with the accused (a serial offender) being found guilty of multiple counts of theft and aggravated assault. In his concluding remarks, the judge summed up the behavior of the guilty person as irreprehensible, lacking all integrity and ethical behavior. He indicated that the person should receive the maximum sentence with no parole because it was important to keep him out of society and recognized that no amount of education would change him or his behavior.

It got me thinking about the dilemma many compliance folks must have faced in their careers—how do you deal with someone who has no ethics or morals?

Can you change them? Or, like the fictional criminal, were they just born “bad to the bone” and incapable of changing?

I decided to reach out to some of my respected colleagues and get their current thinking, comparing it to the accepted thinking on this topic. I asked 21 professional colleagues, of which 16 replied with their thoughts on two questions: (1) Do you think you can teach people to be ethical, or is it just in their blood as opposed to teaching people how to be compliant?; and (2) If ethics can be taught, how do you do it?

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