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Warning: Flawed Codes of Conduct can create ethical complacency

In a recent post, I shared insights from a code-of-conduct best practice study I recently conducted in collaboration with SAI Global. As noted in that post, “companies …are not neglecting all the design elements needed for the code to successfully influence the organization’s ethical orientation and culture. But… they fail to go all the way…”

These missed opportunities are evident not only in relation to laying out the organization’s principles of conduct — which may lack clarity and key levels of accountability — but also with respect to the objective of strengthening the organization’s ethical capacity by increasing ethical ownership, ethical reasoning, and ethical voice. These issues are three of the fundamental six pillars of a culture low on conduct risk.

Ethical ownership refers to the responsibilities, goals, and roles that have been created around an organization’s ethics. Ethical reasoning underscores the conditions that help people engage in sound ethical decision-making. Ethical voice encompasses employees’ access to and level of control over organizational processes created to report unethical behavior and speak out.

A well-designed Code of Conduct should boost all three pillars.

Organizations can shape the context in which employees operate and, by so doing, help people do the right thing. To this end, two objectives deserve attention. First, the code’s design elements that impact conduct risk should be fully identified and isolated. Second, there should be a clear framework on how each element can be used to reduce risk.

The analysis of the 174 codes included in this study suggests that most codes of conduct lay the foundations of ethical ownership. For example, 89 percent of the codes that were examined made it clear to employees that they held the obligation to be honest and meet high ethical standards, and 92 percent of codes also assigned a general responsibility to report misconduct. Moreover, 83 percent of codes encouraged employees to ask questions and raise concerns, and/or to seek assistance with questions or ethical dilemmas.

Though ethical ownership requires more than awareness of duties and responsibilities, emphasis on a specific set of obligations helps create some basic elements of ownership, which is why the current findings corroborate the idea that most codes today are meeting the rudimentary key requirements.

However, our findings also show that the Code of Conduct is not currently equipped to support ethical reasoning as much as it could. For example, only 52 percent of the codes included an ethical decision-making matrix, and none of the codes addressed contextual factors that may affect individual decision-making in the face of ethical dilemmas.

With regard to ethical voice, nearly all codes (91 percent) involved in the study outlined the resources made available to employees for reporting violations. Although awareness of such levers is hardly sufficient to create a sense of control and influence over ethical outcomes, it is an important prerequisite.

But, all of the insights about the code elements that should support ethical voice were a mixed bag. For example, 88 percent of the codes prohibited retaliation against employees for good-faith reporting of misconduct or cooperating with an investigation. Given that ethical voice depends on people’s ability to speak out, prohibiting retaliation is a pre-condition for fostering a sense of control over ethical outcomes. However, best practices would demand that, in addition to explicitly prohibiting retaliatory behavior, the code went further and provided abundant examples to ensure full clarity as to what retaliation entails, especially in its subtler form.

Importantly, only 71 percent of the codes conveyed a commitment to protecting the confidentiality of the information reported. Only 53 percent included an explanation of disciplinary actions for violations of anti-retaliation or confidentiality policies. Finally, only 60 percent of codes explained the reporting and investigation processes the organization would use to address potential instances of unethical behavior.

Overall, these findings suggest that codes of conduct still lack the full procedural clarity and necessary assurances employees need to feel fully in control of ethical outcomes. The decision to report unethical behavior is often preempted by the prospect of an unclear investigative process and the absence of appropriate safeguards against retaliatory behavior and unwanted peer scrutiny. Fear of the incomplete understandings of these issues often supersedes the choice to report that unethical behavior.

Findings also showed that code elements that help reduce ethical dilemmas and boost an organization’s ethical capacity (i.e., ownership + reasoning + voice) tend to co-occur. This is important because it enhances the idea that each element’s effectiveness increases if the element is part of a more cohesive architecture rather than a standalone aspect. For example, 65 percent of the codes examined included 75 percent of key attributes, while 20 percent missed at least 50 percent of them.

Unsurprisingly, the study found a significant relationship between the code’s maturity score (i.e., how many key attributes the code included) and whether the code made it clear that its principles and policies applied to the C-Suite and/or Board of Directors. Overall, codes of conduct that mentioned applicability to the C-Suite and/or Board of Directors had a higher maturity score than the codes of conduct that didn’t.

Notably, of the elements examined, the one that often co-occurred with the mention that the code also applied to executive officers was the obligation to report actual or suspected misconduct. This suggests that when organizations wish to have higher control over unethical outcomes they are more likely to assign clear responsibility to the C-Suite as a deterrent. Though this is a worthy goal, it is also old-fashioned: best practices denote that the Code of Conduct focus on the C-Suite’s responsibility not to maximize control but to ensure that principles of conduct are unequivocally clear and deeply impactful.

Interestingly, codes with a decision-making matrix were more likely to emphasize respect as a principle of conduct and promote diversity and inclusion as a key piece of the organization’s culture. This is fundamental as an emphasis on equality strengthens the organization’s ethical principles and, at the same time, reinforces the idea that doing the right thing is not solely about not doing something unethical or unlawful.

All in all, the study’s results show that organizations have started using various design elements to increase the code’s impact as a culture driver. This is not a minor shift. If context has a significant impact on ethical behavior, and even good, well-meaning people can make poor ethical decisions, the importance of culture becomes critically self-evident.

When business discounts the ripple effects of culture, risk inevitably accelerates. When it underestimates the costs of a bad or weak culture, risk grows exponentially. Today’s ethical failures reveal both unawareness and erroneous calculus. This is why a Code of Conduct that shapes context, not just in terms of ethos, but by curbing bias and moral disengagement can have a meaningful effect on employees’ ethical competence and an organization’s ethical performance.


Caterina Bulgarella, Ph.D., pictured above, is the co-founder of Be Thread, a platform of tools for human-centric work environments, an SAI Global influencer, and a member of Ethical Systems’ core team. She’s a culture architect and ethics expert who advises senior leaders on culture change and ethical challenges. She can be contacted here.

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  1. Your findings are interesting. In reading the summary, however, it strikes me that you may be expecting a Code to do too much. How investigations are conducted, what disciplinary measures may be taken, etc., are too much detail for a Code; separate governance documents should provide the details.

  2. Than you for your comment. You raise an important issue. However, the goal here is not to control every single element of compliance via the code. What is important, instead, is to have a vision of how we can deploy the elements we end up including in the code to better influence employee behavior. This requires keeping in mind scientific insights about ethical decision-making and other aspects of human behavior,, and also acknowledging that there are more levers/angles than narrative, user-friendliness, etc. to focus on when it comes to design principles for the code of conduct.

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