Three Reasons Your Ethics Code Probably Stinks and Three Ways To Fix It

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

It’s a harsh assertion but strong odds are in my favor. Why? Because so many of the codes I’ve read – and I read a lot of them in my line of work – can be categorized into one of three impressively unhelpful types:

1. A LIST OF RULES CALLED AN ETHICS CODE – Obviously everyone needs to know the rules but let’s not confuse them with ethics! Ethics have to do with the broader underlying values and mandates the rules are there to represent. (If you want to understand this idea in more depth, just contact me. I’ll be happy to talk you through what I mean by this as well as its deep and broad implications for ethics, compliance and accountability.)

How To Fix It: Ethics are, among other things, a reflection of your organization’s values. Therefore, your ethics code also needs to reflect your values and not just the rules. Further, in the course of doing so, your code needs to be written in such a way that it will help employees know what to do when there isn’t a rule for something. Think of it this way, if your ethics code isn’t helping employees make better decisions, why even have it?

2. A RISK MANAGEMENT DOCUMENT CALLED AN ETHICS CODE – I used to see these almost exclusively in the financial sector and occasionally in healthcare. Lately, I have seen these rear their ugly heads in a much wider range of sectors. These are typically extensive documents, usually written by corporate counsel or some outside third party, 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.

How To Fix It: Make no mistake, there are plenty of reasons to have effective risk management documents onboard. Just please don’t call them ethics codes. If your ethics code is going to actually help employees make better decisions, and it needs to, your employees had better be able to understand – clearly – what your code says and means. That can only happen if it is written in plain, clear language that is easy to digest, recall, and apply. (NOTE: If your code doesn’t allow all three of those outcomes, you aren’t done yet.)

3. A LIST OF ‘THE SIX CUSTOMARY THOU SHALT NOTS’ CALLED AN ETHICS CODE – This is, in my experience, by far the most common of the these three most useless ethics code types. Versions of his model might look and read quite differently but, strip away the surface differences, and what’s underneath is pretty much identical.

These codes are really simply a list of the six traditional ethics code ‘regulars’ and so they will 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 whomever 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 all easily file this type of ethics code under “Not Terribly Helpful” no matter how positive their intentions.

You’ll have to dig deeper. Really.

How To Fix It: This may be the simplest sounding fix in this article and yet it may well, in reality, be the toughest one by far. You’ll need to do the often-hard work to figure out what are the real-life issues your employees are likely to encounter and then address them both clearly and in practical terms in your code. There’s no way you’ll ever be able to anticipate all of them, of course, but that’s exactly why #1 above is so important (i.e. employees need to know what to do when there isn’t a rule or guideline for something).


Does your ethics code help employees know how to consistently and appropriately apply your organization’s values to the issues confronting them in their day-to-day decision-making?

Is your ethics code written in practical, easily understood and easily applied language?

Does your ethics code help you know what to do as opposed to only telling you what not to do?

I don’t actually care how great your code currently looks or sounds. If it doesn’t pass all three of the above tests, I’m going to say you aren’t done yet; and, if changes still need to be made, get to it! After all, done right – meaning that in some way it drives all decisions – your code becomes a significant piece of your platform for both growth and sustained success. Why would you pass that up???

Need help with an ethics code ‘make-over’? No worries. Let me know and I’ll be happy to help in any way I can. That’s just one of the ways in which I help companies create and maintain cultures of ethics, compliance and accountability.

Christopher Bauer works with executives and managers who are highly invested in their employees consistently doing what they are supposed to be doing. In addition to speaking, training, consulting, and coaching, he writes on ethics, compliance and accountability for a wide range of both print and online publications. Further information on his programs as well as free subscriptions to his Weekly Ethics Thought are available at both and

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