Code of Ethics: Is it sufficient for establishing an ethical culture in an organisation?
The prominence of ethical culture in organisations has become more pronounced in recent years. Whilst the implementation of a Code of Ethics is a fundamental component of the ethical foundation that guides employees’ behaviour and actions, it is often perceived that such Codes will be sufficient in setting forth an ethical climate and culture in the organisation. One may think that when these so-called “must-have” codes are in place, the “job is done”.
However, as important as they may be, these codes are often found to be insufficient to ensure sustained ethical conduct in organisations. In fact, a too strong emphasis on hard written codes might be ineffective in shaping ethical conduct and culture in organisations if they are not properly explained, understood, nurtured, and lived.
In effect, what is warranted is a change in perspective for stakeholders to have a deeper understanding of the key enablers that shape the ethical climate and culture in the organisation.
Why focus on ethical culture?
Ethical codes are descriptive guidelines that specify values, ethical principles, practices, and standards that an organisation would expect its members to embrace and follow to ensure ethical practices and norms prevail. They form the basis by which an action can be judged as right or wrong from an ethical perspective. However, they remain the baseline for ethical guidance.
Even the best-intentioned and well-articulated codes and rules are eventually mere words on paper that cannot in themselves ensure that people will follow such prescriptions and prohibitions unless such codes are actively promoted and lived by the leaders and their subordinates.
Furthermore, important aspects of organisational success, such as trust and integrity, cannot solely be dictated by codes, rules, and policies. They crucially depend on the values, character, conduct, and discretion of people.
The Mauritian context
The ethics-related study conducted in Mauritius clearly demonstrates that despite organisations having some forms of written ethical policies and codes in place, they have observed a considerable extent of unethical behaviour and actions which could be counterproductive for the long-term welfare of the organisations and their employees.
It thus calls for broadening our perspectives and embracing a wide-ranging spectrum of measures that can effectively embed ethical norms and practices into the organisational DNA, thus driving the ethical culture to the next level of maturity within organisations.
In a nutshell, ethical climate and culture are reinforced when:
Ethical codes are properly set and understood by all incumbents through on-going training programmes, workshops on ethics-related case studies and on how to tackle ethical dilemmas, as well as through the establishment of appropriate internal processes, systems, and platforms that provide ethical advice and guidance, and enable ethical culture to progressively permeate the organisation;
Leaders demonstrate the required ethical traits in their decision making and actions at all times, which in turn enables employees or members of the organisation to gain trust and belief in the authenticity of their leaders and managers. It demands that leaders “walk the talk” when it comes to tackling ethical challenges regardless of their relationships and interests;
Key stakeholders of the organisation regulate the nature and intensity of workplace pressures in attaining realisable business goals, as well as create a platform of fairness, integrity, transparency, people consideration, role clarification, respect for ethical norms, and demonstrate concerns for sustainability, amongst others; and
Organisations pledge and commit to embracing a corporate ethics journey that drives the transformation of the work environment into an ethical-oriented culture. The establishment of an Ethics Office that: promotes workplace integrity as part of performance appraisal; sets up a mechanism for confidential reporting of ethical concerns and their resolution in a fair and transparent manner; and provides a platform to advise and help on addressing ethical dilemmas without any fear of retaliation are some of the key enablers in creating a healthy and ethical work climate.
So, why does it matter?
The empirical study shows that when an ethical climate prevails within the organisation, when ethical principles are at the heart of leadership decision making and actions, and when adverse workplace pressures are reduced, such conditions lead towards enhancing employees’ performance and engagement in voluntarily “doing the extra mile” for the welfare of their organisations. A true catalyst for fostering organisational citizenship behaviour…
Dr. Rishi O. Sookdawoor