Why Your Ethics Code Stinks!

Here’s a slightly edited version of a recent Weekly Ethics Thought. As it seemed to stimulate a lot of discussion there, I thought I’d post it here as well for those of you who are not Weekly Ethics Thought subscribers.

“Without even seeing it, I’ll bet your ethics code stinks.

That may seem like a harsh assertion but strong odds are in my favor. Why? Because almost every ethics code I’ve seen can be categorized as one of three impressively unhelpful types:

1. LISTS OF RULES CALLED ETHICS CODES – Obviously everyone needs to know the rules but let’s not confuse them with ethics! Ethics are a reflection of your organization’s values. Your ethics code ought to be able to help you decide what to do when there isn’t a rule for something.

2. RISK MANAGEMENT DOCUMENTS CALLED ETHICS CODES – These are now seen with progressively greater frequency. These are almost always extensive documents, usually written by corporate counsel in generally indecipherable ‘legalese’, and are designed to protect the organization from your inappropriate behavior. You’ll be asked to sign off on having received it as well as on your understanding of it but good luck figuring out what it actually means…

3. THE SIX ‘THOU SHALT NOTS’ – These are the six traditional ethics code regulars. These ethics codes tell you, in some wording or another, not to (1) lie, (2) cheat, (3) steal, (4) work outside your competence, (5) have inappropriate business relationships, or (6) bring dishonor to whoever is calling this their ethics code. Those all sound pretty good, don’t they? But when was the last time you ran headlong into a torturous ethical dilemma and were helped by reminding yourself, “Oh yeah! I’m not supposed to lie, cheat or steal!” I’m guessing we can easily file this type of ethics code under “Not Terribly Helpful” and yet they are by far the most frequently seen in today’s companies and associations.

So, does your ethics code both clearly present your organization’s values and provide clear, helpful guidelines for putting those values into practice? if not, I’d have to say that your ethics code stinks. It may look or sound terrific but it fails the test of helping you and your fellow employees or association members know how to apply your organization’s values to the issues confronting you in your day-to-day decision-making.”

(copyright 2006 by Christopher Bauer and Bauer Ethics Seminars – all rights reserved)

Sooooooo… does your ethics code stink? If so, it’s time to re-think it and develop one that is actually going to help drive your business’ success by helping employees understand what they need to be doing – all day and every day – to bring your company’s values to life.

If your organization has an ethics code or values statement that is either especially good or especially stinky, would you email me to tell me about it? I can always use examples of either type in my books, newsletters, and speeches.

(Information on Bauer Ethics Seminars is available at www.bauerethicsseminars.com.)

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