By Bradwell Mhonderwa
When company leaders decide to grow ethical practices in their organisations they have always thought of crafting a code of ethics. Rightly so, the code of ethics is the cog upon which effective organisational ethics can be anchored. The use of the code of ethics in promoting ethical cultures in organisations is clearly a global phenomenon.
However, questions have always been asked whether the code really serves its intended purpose. It is not far from the truth to insinuate that in most organisations, the ethics code has remained a mere window dressing piece of paper with no measurable effect on employee behaviour.
Codes are crafted, but in most cases fail to change employee behaviour as envisaged. Some people describe the ethics code as the “high sounding nothing” that organisations can do without. But research has proven that where the concept has been applied effectively, responsible business conduct and ethical behaviour in the workplace is achievable.
A code of ethics can be defined as a set of organisational values and beliefs that is intended to guide management and employees in making sound ethical decisions and ensuring responsible business conduct. It comes in the form of booklets or spacious wall charts hung in conspicuous points in the organisation.
The code is the primary means through which organisations give guidance for its employees on what is expected of them. It codifies the standards of ethical behaviour and the values to which all members of the organisation must commit themselves to uphold when conducting company business. The ethics code addresses a variety of issues in the organisation that include the work environment, gender relations, employee-management relationships, conflict of interest matters, insider trading, financial practices, relations with stakeholder groups, etc.
An organisational code of ethics is different from the professional code of ethics which is associated with the professions. An organisational code is concerned with ethical standards that affect the whole organisation, whereas the professional code guides conduct of members in a particular profession.
For example, while the biomedical ethics code guides specialist health care providers such as doctors and nurses, an organisational code of ethics for a hospital applies to all staff at the hospital including the doctors and nurses.
Historically, the term code of ethics has been interchanged with such other terms like code of conduct, code of business standards, code of business practices, etc. In trying to differentiate between the code of conduct and the code of ethics Craig Nordland defines a code of conduct as specifying actions in the workplace, and the code of ethics as providing general guidelines to decisions about those actions.
A clearer differentiation of the two codes for our own purposes would probably be to view the code of conduct as addressing minimum standards of conduct as stipulated by law (Labour Act Chapter 28:01), with the code of ethics going beyond the legislative expectations and those minimums, to invoke a spirit of self-regulation in organisations and employees in order to guide them towards responsible business conduct and appropriate workplace behaviour. Practically it remains the prerogative of the organisation concerned to decide whether to separate the code of ethics from the code of conduct, or to combine them into a one unitary code depending on the organisation’s operations and business strategies.
A code of ethics is clearly a yardstick by which the ethical performance of a company can be measured. A good code of ethics not only communicates the organisational values and beliefs, it also motivates employees to give their best in the workplace. A good code impacts the bottom line.
To be effective, the code, however, needs to be fortified by other tools available for pursuing ethical objectives. Apparently research has shown that when the code is employed as a stand-alone, there will be little difference between organisations that have a code and those that do not have one. The same research shows that the code is impactful when implemented as part of a comprehensive organisational ethics programme that includes other ethics infrastructure such as board oversight, training, and ethics rewarding and sanctioning processes.
Implementing the code as part of a comprehensive ethics programme that has board oversight and unfettered management commitment will ensure the code becomes real in the eyes of employees and across all business operations. It ensures that it is not a one-time effort that remains a written organisational expression destined for employees’ office drawers without ever shaping their behaviour.
When an organisation crafts a code of ethics, its management should guard against getting trapped in a euphoric belief that because a code has been crafted and distributed to staff, employees will simply join hands to practise ethical behaviour.
A good code should be more than simply a statement of an organisation’s ethical guidelines. It should be a true commitment by all staff at all levels in the organisation towards responsible business practices, and should be anchored by unquestionable management commitment. The ethics code must be practised, audited, monitored and evaluated.
The code should be written in simple and plain language, and must be an easily accessible document. Formulation of the code should involve employees so that they recognise it as their own, and be willing to leave by it. Equally, the tone and the style with which the code is written and communicated should be such that it will easily resonate with their expectations.
While a properly crafted and effectively implemented code can transform employee behaviour, the code cannot be viewed as a substitute for a poor business plan or ineffective resource utilisation strategies in the organisation. And equally so, the ethics code does not provide the answer to every difficult situation in the organisation; neither should it be used as a substitute for individual judgment. A code must simply be intended as a guide to ethical decision-making in situations of ethical dilemmas, and must contribute to an organisational climate that encourages meaningful and thoughtful inquiry about complex ethical issues, empowering staff at every level in the organisation to engage in ethical reasoning and dialoguing, and in the process positively impacting the bottom line.
Bradwell Mhonderwa is an ethics coach and trainer with the Business Ethics Centre.
This article was written by Bradwell Mhonderwa and originally published on allafrica