Scripts are More than for Cold Calling: Why Using Scripts for Ethical Dilemmas Works

You already have scripts, including how you greet your spouse when you get home everyday. In fact, if you walked through the door at the end of the day with a burning question about Brexit, it would probably raise an alarm with your spouse. And it works both ways: your spouse is just as conditioned to hear your daily questions about your dog’s day as you are to ask them when you get home

Advisors are well versed in the ethics of their profession. They are careful to comply with regulations, maintain high standards towards their clients and avoid conflicts of interest. But ask any financial advisor with experience in the business and they’ll be able to tell you about that one time they stepped into a gray area unprepared. Or when they felt unprepared for handling a staff issue. Advisors know that for many scripts work for finding clients and for describing specific rules. Just like their attorney advisors may have specific forms they prefer to use again and again, scripts work for making sure all points are covered in talking to new clients or in describing the risk of an investment. Similarly, scripts can work for ethical situations. Here’s how.

Many ethics advisors note that most ethical mistakes happen not because of greed or intentional bad acts by an advisor or their staff. Instead, it’s often more likely that a situation arises that the advisor is ill-prepared to meet. Even situations that an advisor may know the rules may catch them off guard with how to phrase a response.

Simply teaching the rules to staff, or reviewing them again and again for yourself might not be enough. In fact, studies show that there is no strong evidence to establish that training students to be moral philosophers or to work to enhance their character improves their ethical actions. That’s partly because of the instinctiveness of our reactions. That is, we may act instinctively even it if isn’t rational. And that is also partly because no action or decision happens in a vacuum: each situation presents itself nestled into the context of different social contexts.

Scripting responses to ethical situations can help provide a clear response and, importantly, can ensure a swift response to an ethical situation. The first step, obviously, is for an advisor to identify any potential gray area that an advisor or their staff might step in. The next is to run through the response that is not only ethical but also complies with the culture and kindness that your business normally uses. Scripting may sound corny, and when done poorly can sound canned, but most of us use scripts throughout the day. How you greet your coworkers every morning is probably pretty similar from day to day. Ditto for greeting your spouse when you get home. In fact, if you walked through the door at the end of the day with a burning question about Brexit, it would probably raise an alarm with your spouse. This automatic response works because it saves the brain some effort, both on the script speaker and on the script hearer.  Your spouse is just as conditioned to hear your questions about your dog’s day as you are to ask them.  

But scripting responses isn’t necessarily without it’s own challenges. A scripted or habitual response could mean missing an ethical or compliance issue because it seems close to the normal response. That could mean missing a typo on an order (sell 1000 shares versus 7000 shares) or assuming that a colleague has followed all checklist items even if they missed a document.

Scripts work in situations where we have to investigate conduct by coworkers or long-time clients. Relying on a ready script can help remove the emotional tension from those situations.

Other key tips may be to monitor the culture of your workplace for unintended habits and scripts. If you are passionate and driven and constantly go the extra mile for your clients, your staff may as well, but with fewer resources. That could mean that your staff makes a mistake in compliance or ethics merely out of fatigue. It can be helpful to ensure that your behavior as a leader and manager models boundaries and balance.  Another key approach may be to approach training staff, and yourself, about scripts by assuming you know the right thing to do, but need a booster shot of confidence in doing it. As always, run any script by your attorney advisor to hear their input on a potential blind spot in your approach.

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