CODES OF CONDUCT: PANACEA OR BUNK?

by Cornelius von Baeyer



 

There are many quotable quotes from eminent authorities that polarize the issues around business codes of conduct. We hear that codes are useless – hypocritical window-dressing to mask continuing corruption. We hear that codes are great – a crucial step on the way to enhanced corporate productivity, credibility and profitability.

 On the way, we hear (from auditors) that codes must be specific enough so that compliance is measurable. We hear (from philosophers) that ethics is a process – a continuing dialogue on dilemmas in which a formal code plays only a very small part. And we hear (from consultants) that codes of conduct definitely require associated training programs, communications initiatives, ethics officers, hotlines, and specific measures for corporate activities from marketing to layoffs.

 How do we get through this thicket of forcefully presented views? There is no definitive statistical study that shows once and for all whether codes work or not. This will dishearten some. But there is considerable information that codes, along with other measures, have helped pull some companies out of the morass of scandal, and have helped many companies build a healthier work climate and reputation. Look only at the Defense Industry Initiative on Business Ethics and Conduct (DII) for some dramatic confirmation.

 To develop an intelligent, practical approach to codes of conduct, it is important to distinguish different kinds of rules (for example, values versus prohibitions). It is also important to bear in mind some of the accumulated experiences of others who have tried their hand at codes (for example, keep the corporate lawyers to a minimal role). The seminar on Ethics and Corporate Vulnerability will provide the venue for more details to be provided on these subjects.

 Whatever our personal opinions on these matters, codes are here to stay. They are part of the environment for modern business. Pressure to have a code, any code, can come from any side – the public, the media, shareholders, regulators, as well as from within the industry and within the company itself. We might as well try to make the most of it.
 



Cornelius von Baeyer  was a member of the panel on Business Ethics for the one-day seminar on Ethics and Corporate Vulnerability, held on October 28, 1997, in Ottawa. He is one of the consultants referred to above, with an extensive background on codes of conduct.

[This article appeared in the CDPA Report, newsletter of the Canadian Defence Preparedness Association, vol. XI, issue 3, Sept/Oct 1997.]

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This page updated 13 May 99.