Abbott Laboratories' Shocking Ethics Gambit

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Abbott Laboratories wants to keep its employees engaged and alert for the mandatory ethics-and-compliance sessions the company holds for all its employees, so high-voltage electrodes are now part of the training program--virtually, in any case. The pharmaceutical research firm augments its traditional program of paper manuals, management discussions, and group lecture training with a touch-screen video game dubbed Rocked or Shocked. The game is set up in kiosks at various gatherings and training sessions to whimsically hammer home the messages that keep the company operating on the straight and narrow. At stake in the game is the comfort and safety of digital avatar Joe Salesguy, who beams with every correct answer, and receives a nasty charge when mistakes are made, such as agreeing that World Series tickets are an acceptable vendor perk. Also at stake is regional or divisional pride, as the game displays a scoreboard by geographic or personnel groups. One version of the game even allows head-to-head play. The sessions are quick: Each player has 60 seconds to answer six questions from a database of dozens. Abbott started the program to provide a breakaway from the more staid portions of its standard conduct sessions. "We've got quite a variety of computer-based and live training for serious, substantive training that we do across the board all year long, but we were looking for a way to add some variety," says Catherine Sazdanoff, divisional vice president of ethics and compliance at Abbott. "We need to have something live and fresh...and people have responded really well to this." The company's development expenses for Rocked or Shocked were minimal: An outside firm designed the game portion, and the ethics-and-compliance staff edits the rotating list of questions. More than 13,000 employees have used the program since its launch in early 2003. "This is a way to get interest and attention" with a different sort of pressure than the core compliance training program provides, says Ann Fahey-Widman, director of external communications at Abbott. "A lot of our ethics programs are compulsory, have a period of time in which [they must] be completed, and you have to score a certain level. This is something that is more intuitive and more interesting." Although the internal competition for high Rocked or Shocked scores is encouraged by the leaderboard, Abbott does not actually track the game's scores, since it is meant as a reinforcing diversion and not a serious test of mastery. The multiple-choice questions tend to be basic, commonsense issues. Someone with no special exposure to Abbott's in-house training can consistently rate a perfect score on the program by selecting reasonable answers. The point, the company says, isn't the score or the lack of trick questions, but the reinforcement. "It's accomplishing its goal, which is getting people to pay attention [while we] appeal to them with something that's fun and interactive on a serious matter, something they have to focus on," Fahey-Widman says. "The return...was to find a way to deliver the message and move away from the sense that the [ethics-and-compliance] messages were always negative, dry, and time-consuming," Sazdanoff says. By pulling back on the somber tone of conduct training, Abbott can actually get employees to take it more seriously. "The more it gets used, the more it spreads information about our program, and we found people walking away from the game saying, 'I guess I better study.'"
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