Professionalism/Lou van den Dries, George Orwell, and Mandatory Ethics Training

Mandatory ethics training is required in many professional environments [1], thus it is imperative that we understand their role in our decision making processes. We can learn from the case studies of Lou van den Dries, Orwellian Ethics, and national practices to help guide our thoughts. As a professional, we must choose whether to comply or defy with mandatory ethics regimes.

State of Illinois vs. Lou van den DriesEdit

Lou van den Dries, a tenured professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been working at the university since 1988. In 2003, Illinois issued the (5 ILCS 430/) State Officials and Employees Ethics Act [2] that required each officer, member, and employee to complete, at least annually beginning in 2004, an ethics training program conducted by an appropriate state agency. Van den Dries replied with "I find it critically important to refuse my collaboration with this Orwellian scheme." His defiance to take mandatory ethics training from 2006-2009 caused the Illinois Executive Ethics Commission to put him on trial for failure to comply with the law.[3]

Illinois caseEdit

Illinois found Lou van den Dries has intentionally violated Section 5-10 of the State Officials and Employees Ethics Act, by failing to complete ethics training programs from 2006-2009.[3]

Van den Dries' caseEdit

Dries spoke against mandatory ethics training, stating

"Mandatory ethics training for adults is an Orwellian concept and has no place in a civil and free society. It is Big Brother reducing us to the status of children."[3]

"Subjecting all state employees to ethics training because of corruption among a few politicians and their cronies is collective punishment."[3]

"Compliance with the ethics training is plainly based on coercion."[3]

His final remarks while failing to complete the ethics training were

"I have carefully read and reviewed the content of the Ethics Orientation for Noncompliant Employees of the Agencies of the Illinois Governor program and I understand its subject matter. Furthermore, I acknowledge that I am aware that ethics training is an annual requirement... I acknowledge awareness that my failure to appropriately complete such future annual training on a timely basis may result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination of state employment."[3]

Ex-governor of Illinois and convicted felon Rod Blagojevich signed the ethics bill in 2003, making it a law. He also took the ethics training 5 times before he was arrested for soliciting bribes in 2008[4]. Blagojevich is a good example of the ineffectiveness of Illinois' ethics training.


The case finalized with Dries being fined $500 with a potential $5,000 if he continued to fail the ethics training courses. Dries stated

"While many of my colleagues agree that this ethics training is a big waste of time and money, they didn't really take the steps I took in trying to fight it. So without active support from my colleagues, it became too time consuming and costly (lawyers fees) to continue my resistance," [5]

and succumbed to the law, completing Illinois ethics training in 2011.[3]

Ethics Codes and Codes of ConductEdit

Although van den Dries was resistant to the idea of ethics training, it is very common. Nearly 90% of employees say their organizations have written standards of ethical conduct, and 65% say their organizations provide some form of training on these standards.[6] The reasons for enacting an ethical code can vary. In the United States, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (2002) requires all companies that are publicly traded to have an ethics regime, including an ethics code.[7] Similarly, many government organizations have enacted ethics codes for their employees to combat corruption.[8] Organizations view these codes as necessary to protect the employee and the reputation of the employer. Some skeptical observers have noted that organizations use training programs to reinforce rules to prevent lawsuits stemming from the actions of rogue employees. [7]

Distinction between Ethics Codes and Codes of ConductEdit

An important distinction exists between an ethical code and a code of conduct. Although both codes encourage specific forms of behavior by employees, they attempt to regulate behavior in very different ways.[8] Ethical codes govern decision-making by providing a guide for what to do in unanticipated events. Codes of conduct govern actions by preventing certain types of behavior. Although they can be brief,they are usually fairly length and detailed in specifying what employees cannot do.

van den Dries argues that ethics is not, "like a driver’s test, where the traffic rules are conventions that are to some extent arbitrary, and which therefore have to be learned by drivers in order to prevent accidents and chaos."[9] However, statutes in a code of conduct are often arbitrary, non self-evident, and changing. The Illinois ethics training did not only attempt to teach a code of ethics- it also taught a code of conduct.[10] One example from the Illinois Law Code is the value of a gift which an employee can accept.[11] Since the training taught some arbitrary rules employees were expected to follow, it is likely van den Dries could have learned something from the training, even if he were a highly principled individual.

Purpose of Behavioral CodesEdit

Ethical codes do not necessarily influence the judgement of those who read them. However, they make it more likely that people will behave in certain ways by focusing on the character of their actions. They can also remind employees of the sanctions for violations. Properly deigned ethics codes help make good behavior a habit by encouraging people to do the right thing for the right reasons. By making good behavior the standard of the workplace, ethics codes reduce the personal sacrifice sometimes involved in making an ethical decision (see Rodney Rocha).

Although ethical codes provide guidelines, they do not take away a person's moral autonomy or absolve a person from reason. If a person has a strong, reasoned objection to an ethical code, they should not comprise their integrity. Ethical codes simply provide a model for behavior which should not be violated unless such violations can be justified by a higher ethical principle.[8]

Orwellian Ethics TrainingEdit

Big Brother

The concept Orwellian reflects the works of George Orwell, especially 1984. In this particular context, Lou van den Dries implicitly defined Orwellian ethics training as training that precludes individuals from making decisions based on their morals. Van den Dries hinted that mandatory ethics training was the first step to an Orwellian society.


One way to evaluate the validity of van den Dries' statements is to compare his training to other cases of ethics training. Each case will be evaluated based upon two criteria: whether the ethics training is Orwellian, and whether it is mandatory.

North KoreaEdit

North Korean Propaganda

North Korean is an example of a truly Orwellian regime. Its propaganda closely resembles that of Oceania in George Orwell's 1984. Kim Jong-un and his predecessors have assumed the role of Big Brother, using posters, art, and video to associate the Kim name with the state. Propaganda videos falsely accuse the West of brainwashing and warn against American treachery[12]. The "training" is mandatory because it is nearly impossible for North Korean citizens to avoid it. In cities like Pyongyang, streets and buildings are lined with billboards which demonize the West and encourage workers to work harder[13]. In the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, North Korean balloons drop anti-South propaganda leaflets[14].

Van den Dries' case does not have much in common with North Korea. The Illinois University ethics training is not Orwellian in the way North Korea is; it cannot be linked so directly with 1984. Also, the training is not completely mandatory. Lou van den Dries could have quit his job and worked at another university. He was not forced to view the contents of the training every time he left his house.

Pledge of AllegianceEdit

The Pledge of Allegiance is an oath dedicating loyalty to the USA. Its Orwellian and mandatory qualities lie in the 1943 Supreme court case involving the Pledge. The Supreme Court ruled that students in schools should not be forced to say the pledge because it violated the First Amendment. This made the Pledge optional, also reducing its status as an Orwellian concept. However, the Pledge has strong implications. Reciting it implies that one has aligned his self with the ethics of the United States, and that he will support the country's decisions. This has some Orwellian quality, since many people pledge themselves to some decisions they may not agree with.

This case is similar to van den Dries' situation. Unlike North Korean propaganda, the Pledge of Allegiance is not effective at influencing people's morals. It is optional to all people, but if examined before the Supreme Court decided this, the Pledge is less mandatory than the ethics training of Illinois. In the present Illinois's training bears a larger penalty for defiance. The important difference here is the content of the two cases. Illinois's ethics training was more of a list of rules, while the Pledge is an oath of loyalty.


Lou van den Dries overreacted to mandatory ethics training. He made poor assumptions about the training's purpose, which led him to believe that the training would try to change his morals.

We have generalized this case to two lessons:

  1. Don't let mandatory ethics training change your beliefs. They are guides to behavior but you must apply your own morals in ethical dilemmas.
  2. Exercise ethical judgement, don't defy unless there is an ethical consequence to compliance. Lou Van Den Dries was afraid of a slippery slope of mandatory ethics that would enforce ever-increasing restrictions. The purpose of the Illinois ethics training was to show their code of conduct rather than to indoctrinate. It described the protocol for bribery, gifts, and whistle blowing but did not assert its authority over individual morality. Dries appears to have defied out of laziness to complete the mandatory ethics rather than fear of indoctrination.


  1. Corporate Ethics Practices in the Mid-1990’s: An Empirical Study of the Fortune 1000. (n.d.).Journal of Business Ethics, 18(3), 283–294. Retrieved from
  2. State Officials and Employees Ethics Act 5 ILCS 430. (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2013, from
  3. a b c d e f g State of Illinois Vs Lou Van Den Dries. (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2013, from
  4. United States District Court (2008). United States of America v. Rod Blagojevich and John Harris. Retrieved from
  5. UI professor fined $500 for skipping ethics training for years | (n.d.). Retrieved from
  6. Joseph, J., & Ethics Resource Center. (2000). Ethics in the Workplace. Retrieved from
  7. a b Hopkins, S. L. (2013). How effective are ethics codes and programs? Many companies craft codes of ethics and establish the related ethics and compliance programs to enforce the codes. But do they actually work in practice to accomplish what they set out to do? - Free Online Lib. Financial Executive. Retrieved from
  8. a b c Gilman, S. (2005). ETHICS CODES AND CODES OF CONDUCT AS TOOLS FOR PROMOTING AN ETHICAL AND PROFESSIONAL PUBLIC SERVICE: Comparative Successes and Lessons. Retrieved from
  9. Van den Dries, L. (n.d.). Ethics Training is Wrong. Retrieved March 29, 2013, from
  10. Illinois Executive Ethics Comission. (n.d.). Why Ethics Training? Retrieved from
  11. State Officials and Employees Ethics Act 5 ILCS 430. (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2013, from
  12. Pfeiffer, E. Alleged North Korean propaganda video: ‘This is how Americans live today’. YAHOO! News. Retrieved from
  13. Johnson, R. (2011). Check out these twisted North Korean propaganda posters. Business Insider. Retrieved from
  14. Herman, S. (2013). S. Korean police thwart anti-North leaflet launch. Voice of America. Retrieved from