Four Steps to Updating Your Ethics Code

schempp_ethics update2 January 28, 2021 By: Paul Schempp

Times change, and so do the ethical questions that associations and their members may confront. This four-step process can help you refresh your ethics code to ensure that it reflects your organization’s values and will guide your members through contemporary ethical challenges.

Like most policies, ethics codes are often written, posted, and forgotten until needed in a moment of crisis. But ethics codes are too important and potentially influential to be allowed to gather dust.

As times change, so do ethics. Ethics codes need to be regularly refreshed to address contemporary issues facing association members—which today include complex subjects like harassment, bullying, racial injustice, cybersecurity, social media, and a host of other current conditions. In this environment, maintaining an ethical association requires timely, responsive, informed, collaborative, and functional approaches.

If you haven’t reviewed or updated your ethics code in some time, consider this your “ethics refresh” guide—four relatively simple steps to ensure that your organization’s ethics code is up to date, relevant to your mission and members, and functioning as needed.

Ensure Your Values Are Represented

At its core, an association's code of ethics is a set of value-based statements intended to serve as guides to acceptable, honorable behavior for its members. Every industry and profession has distinct and defining characteristics and practices, meaning that certain principles need to be reflected in the association’s ethical standards. Members of trade, medical, education, and financial associations, for example, may all uphold the principles of respect, honesty, and integrity, yet each association represents specific concerns and practices in need of ethical guidance.

In reexamining and refreshing your association's code of ethics, the first question to be answered is “What are our defining values?” and the second is “Does our current code of ethics reflect these values?” An association's core values form the foundation of its code of ethics. In writing or revising a code of ethics, the first step is to ensure these core values hold a clear and unequivocal position.

An association's core values form the foundation of its code of ethics. In writing or revising a code of ethics, the first step is to ensure these core values hold a clear and unequivocal position.

Include the Six Universal Ethical Principles

A 2005 study comparing corporate, global, and professional codes of ethics identified six “universal moral values.” These were common principles or factors contained in most codes and were, therefore, recommended as standards for inclusion in all ethics codes. The second step in your ethics refresh is to determine whether your current code contains these universal values:

  • Trustworthiness, encompassing honesty, integrity, transparency, reliability, and loyalty
  • Respect for members, colleagues, clients, employees, and basic human rights
  • Responsibility, incorporating notions of accountability, excellence, and self-restraint
  • Fairness, addressing matters of due process, impartiality, and equity
  • Caring, displaying kindness, sensitivity, concern for others, and avoiding unnecessary harm
  • Citizenship, including legal compliance, civil responsibility, and environmental protection

Address Contemporary Concerns

The social conditions in which any society or organization functions continually change. Some changes are evolutionary and others revolutionary. Between the pandemic and politics, this is certainly true today.

As events unfold and unfamiliar situations arise, members must be able to rely on their association’s code of ethics to guide decisions and actions in meeting contemporary challenges. The third step in refreshing your ethics code is to ensure that it will assist your members in addressing the ethical dilemmas facing them today, including these:

Technological advancements. New technologies bring new capabilities and benefits but also can cause harm to others. Your ethics code should help your members make decisions and take actions pertaining to creating, adapting, and adopting new technologies with fairness, human dignity, and the common good in mind.

Harassment and discrimination. An effective ethics code clearly disapproves of behavior, words, or actions that discriminate against, harass, or imply hostility toward others as individuals or groups.

Social media. It has become abundantly clear how easily social media platforms can be used unethically. Your ethics code should guide your members in engaging social media authentically with transparent, honest, and respectful communication.

Health and safety. Your ethics code should require that members actively work to provide a safe and healthy workplace as well as improve the health of their community. 

Environmental responsibility. A comprehensive contemporary ethics code demands that people and organizations demonstrate respect for the environment by making rational and sustainable use of natural resources.

Accounting practices. Ethical accounting means presenting facts objectively and without slanting financial information in any misleading way.

Data privacy. In today’s digital world, ethical conduct includes respecting the rights of clients, colleagues, and others to have control over how their personal information is collected, stored, and used. 

Edit for Clarity

A study of one association’s ethics code revealed that most members found it to be incomplete, too detailed, not clearly or cleanly written, operational rather than aspirational, too limited in terms of explanations, and lacking in positive incentives for compliance. Consequently, the members didn't read it, much less attempt to adhere to it. Many expressed a strong desire to see a code of ethics having clarity, simplicity, specificity, and teeth. Make the final step in your ethics refresh a review and revision of its language to ensure your code is complete, compelling, and clear.

Paul Schempp

Paul Schempp, Ph.D., is a leadership consultant and president of Performance Matters, Inc., in Alpharetta, Georgia.