Setting Up a Cycle for Updating Your Code of Ethics

A humna resources employee talking to another employee. May 16, 2024 By: Lynette R. Bradley-Baker, Ph.D., CAE and Adrian Stratton, MBA, CPP, PRP

An association’s code of ethics should be a living document that stays relevant and useful. There are a few considerations that can help you decide when to make changes.

A code of ethics is used primarily as a guide, and it provides an opportunity to showcase organizational values and define parameters of acceptable behavior. An effective code provides detailed information as unique as the membership it covers. Developing and maintaining a code of ethics also allows an association to be better prepared to manage developing issues, and it can enhance awareness and community within an organization. As needs change, the code of ethics and related rules and guidance should be reevaluated to remain relevant and useful.

Find the Right Cadence for Your Association

The first step in the update cycle is to consider how a code of ethics can be changed. Rules, practicality, and even customs of an organization each may have an influence on revision frequency. Many organizations delegate the task of reviewing and amending to a smaller unit, such as a board or a committee, that can closely study the need and impact of proposals. Other organizations find value in a direct vote by a larger representation, such as delegates at a convention or even a vote of the entire membership. Update frequency may then occur as needed or as planned. When following an as-needed cycle of amendment, updating a code of ethics will often occur in response to internal or external situations. An internal disciplinary matter, a policy change, and even a change in strategic or operational direction could trigger a need to revisit the code of ethics. Changing less frequently and only modifying in direct response to a specific event provides an opportunity to address recent issues and all related rules for relevancy. In contrast, a planned periodic review helps to ensure update frequency is intentional. Without a defined cadence of updating, an organization could find its code grossly outdated when it needs to handle a contemporary crisis. By adopting such a cadence as a provision within the code or as a separate policy, a rule can be established to trigger review and amendment. Common frequency intervals include quarterly, annually, or biennially. While establishing a mandated review process is generally positive, care should be taken to ensure that changes are helpful and not made simply for form.

Don’t Forget About the Rules of Enforcement

Often, an established and clearly written code of ethics can be further strengthened by corresponding rules for enforcement. Based on structure, intent, and content, additional rules in bylaws or policy may have an impact on a code or be impacted by changes in the code with regard to clarity and alignment. As noted in a previous Associations Now article, enforcement rules regarding expelling members due to violation of the code must align with the relevant nonprofit corporation statute, articles of incorporation, and organization’s bylaws. During a cycle of updating the code, intentional review and care should be taken to ensure accuracy and completeness in all pointing references, citations, and complimentary rules.

Putting the Plan Into Action

Dorothy Farrell, chief science officer at the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, describes the development and implementation of the association’s code as a “continual work in progress.” To refine, the association uses input from the board of directors, staff, members, and an external consultant. Additionally, the association’s legal counsel provides a formal review of the code and its enforcement. Farrell explained that the association’s Code of Conduct Advisory Committee “will formally review the code every three years and will also work with staff to develop and maintain guidance pertaining to the code throughout the association.” Guidance can come in many forms, such as enhancement of processes for governance groups and committees.

In Conclusion

Associations have a responsibility to define parameters of acceptable behavior among their members and other associates. Within the context of organizational values, clear rules provide protection and guidance for all involved. By engaging in a regular cycle of updating their code of ethics, organizations can ensure continued relevancy and clarity in a truly important area.

Lynette R. Bradley-Baker, Ph.D., CAE

Lynette R. Bradley-Baker, Ph.D., R.Ph., CAE, is senior vice president, chief engagement officer at the American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy in Arlington, Virginia, and a member of ASAE's Ethics Committee.

Adrian Stratton, MBA, CPP, PRP

Adrian Stratton, MBA, CPP, PRP is a management consultant and credentialed parliamentarian. He is a member of ASAE's Ethics Committee.