In a bar codes, you find bars
In a genetic code, you find genes. 
So why do we, too often, only find standards and rules and so little ethics in a code of ethics?

Why is ethics sometimes only found in the title of the code of ethics? 

Is ethics still so little known? Or could it be that the exercise seems simpler and easier this way? 

Before contemplating drafting a code of ethics, it is fundamental to understand that ethics is a reflexive discipline. Ethics is a practical part of philosophy, which aims to determine, upon making a decision, the meaning and the sense to give to a particular behaviour. Thus, no code will be appropriate without the necessary reflection, which must precede its formulation.

Understanding codes of ethics:

  • A code is above all a statement, a codex. It was once a tablet on which to write. Over time, it came to mean a collection of set rules and standards in a professional field which are legally binding;
  • A code without ethics is a statement of rules and standards with a general scope, not relating to a particular company or context; 
  • A code of ethics results from reflection on corporate ethics and values, on which the code should be based. It will contain rules defining the practical and general formulation of ethics and the company’s values; 
  • A code of ethics created for show is merely form without substance.

To avoid the pitfalls of a code without ethics and of a code for show, you must be able to answer the following questions:

1. Why do we want a code of ethics?

2. Do we want a code without ethics, a code of ethics, or a code for show

To answer the first question, the intent behind the code must be thought over. 

Is the code’s aim to inspire? To monitor? To punish? Do we want to do the exercise for the sake of doing it? Do we want to do the same thing as everyone else? Do we want to have a code because it’s fashionable? Because it’s required by a regulator? Etc.

As you can see, there are many different intents, and motivations may vary significantly. The answer to the questions set out above leads directly to the second question. 

So, are you looking for a code without ethics, a code of ethics, or a code for show

Even if the question may seem impertinent, be aware that it is not …

When drafting a code of ethics, conceptual shortcuts are too often attempted. People try to simplify things by removing elements of culture and by removing reflection from the exercise in favour of rules and standards that already exist. The code is often a document that has been copied and pasted without consideration of the company’s context. It is, at the end, a code without ethics.

People engage in the exercise of drafting such a code for the sake of doing it or to follow orders. And they settle for a code without ethics, where the only ethics is featured in the title of the code. 

Such final product should be called a code of professional conduct or a code of good behaviour. This code is still a set of rules without real ethical content with the obligation to follow the rules.

Why does this situation happen so often?

Although we talk about it frequently, ethics scare us. 

Ethics scare us because it involve doing things differently and imply that some choices are better than others and that following the rule is sometimes not enough. 

Ethics scare us because it involves reflection. It implies accountability and independence. 

Ethics scare us because it is a bet on people rather than a bet on rules.

Without the necessary reflection, which must precede its formulation, drafting a code of ethics will only lead to a deontological code: “you must or you must not”. Worse still, it will lead only to a code without ethics or even a code for show.

The only advantage of writing a code without ethics is that it doesn’t need to be written anymore.  

If the code of ethics doesn’t influence an organization’s culture through a reflective exercise, based on a particular time period, this code will only allow to compare the actions of the employees and managers with a past judged as being ideal.

This code will allow us to look for faults and to designate a culprit. Nothing more.                                                                      

The code will be an organizational and administrative form for appearances.                                                       

Useful, but not really…

As the saying goes:

We only change when what we see coming is better then what we have .                           

A code of ethics should portray a future, an ideal, a goal. Rather than creating fear among employees, this goal should inspire change in the right direction.

Ethics is a challenge faced by all employers and employees that, when successfully managed, will enable the company to last.

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