What to Do After Your Code of Conduct is Written

December 31, 2003

Ethics Resource Center 2003
ERC Staff

Excerpted from Creating a Workable Company Code of Conduct (2003)

Developing a code of ethics, while a significant task in and of itself, is really the start of the overall process for meeting the requirements for the effective communication of organizational ethics standards. A code cannot stand alone. Too often this is not understood and well-crafted codes end up having limited impact because of three failings:

  • The failure to ensure that the content of the code is effectively communicated to its intended audiences;
  • The failure to train employees on both the code's content and a process for working through ethical challenges not directly addressed by the code (including those situations where elements of the code appear to be mutually exclusive);
  • The failure to keep the code alive - to adapt its language and focus to meet the changing needs of the organization.

Before your code committee declares the project concluded, outline the beginning of subsequent phases to enculturate your new standards into the company.

Communication Strategy

Intentionally announce the presence of the code … often! The communication strategy should have at least these four objectives:

  • Ensure that every employee receives a copy of, or has ready access to, the code;
  • Ensure that every employee understands his/her personal responsibility to abide by the provisions and standards laid out in the code;
  • Ensure that the organization's commitment to the code is unambiguous and clear to every employee; and
  • Ensure that employees are exposed to abundant examples of the code's utility, and how common questions about its intent and application have been resolved.

Training Strategy

  • Help employees understand the code and its usefulness. The training strategy should ensure that all employees have the opportunity to:
  • Review the code's provisions with a focus on how those provisions apply to the individual's specific job responsibilities;
  • Learn what specific behaviors and decision making processes the organization wants him/her to apply when confronting ethics challenges;
  • Raise questions about ambiguities or uncertainties resulting from the code's specific language and examples;
  • Practice applying the standards communicated by the code to "typical" ethics challenges faced by employees; and
  • Learn what the organization wants employees to do when:
    • Facing ethical uncertainties;
    • Observing ethical misconduct; or
    • Perceiving pressures being applied (to one's self or others) to commit ethical misconduct.

Ultimately, this training effort should do more than communicate a code's content. It should result in employees having an increased level of confidence and comfort when making business decisions that address ethical challenges. Specifically, an employee should feel:

  • Confidence that the selected course of action is consistent with the organization's ethical standards and that it will be supported by the organization;
  • Comfort that the selected course of action is consistent with the organization's core values as well as those of the decision maker, and that the decision will generally be recognized as ethical.

Updating Strategy

A code that is not current is not relevant. Every organization needs a process for ensuring that the code and its supporting communications and training strategies continue to reflect the organization's ethical priorities. Codes need to evolve because issues and the organization's standards for dealing with them evolve.

New issues emerge--the use of e-mail, Internet access and access to "adult" web sites were not addressed in the typical code 10-12 years ago. Now nearly every contemporary code addresses these issues.

Existing issues change in their priority--for example, sexual harassment has been addressed in codes longer than the issue has been a central matter of corporate focus. But today's codes feature more information and description of what constitutes sexual harassment, the responsibilities of those witnessing it and references very detailed policies.

Today, organizations are addressing Sarbanes-Oxley, SEC and NYSE requirements for their codes and making the changes needed to ensure code currency with these new demands. Determine the next steps for your company. We suggest that you establish an ethics committee (either as an extension of your code committee or as a new group of representatives) to tend to the development of a program and infrastructure that will reinforce your code.