INTERPRETING YOUR CODE
The following article outlines the process of applying a code of
ethics to the activities of an organization. The example here is
the Canadian Council for International Co-operation. The author is
a member of its Ethics Review Committee.
Our Code of Ethics:
A shared vision, high principles and some good housekeeping
by Cornelius von Baeyer
Doing the right thing can be a challenge at times.
A director in one development organization is married
to a director in another. A complex deal between the two organizations is
coming up. What is the ethical thing to do?
A major program is being developed that is aimed at a
specific sector of the partnerís community, without attempting to bring in
marginalized ethnic and disabled groups. Is this in keeping with sound
A new management system is being considered. The organizationís Board
of Directors would have much less day-to-day control. This has advantages
for the organization, but does it contravene the Code of Ethics?
Dealing with dilemmas
Recognizing such workplace dilemmas is the first step in making the Code
of Ethics, the centerpiece of any ethics program, a living document. Resolving
a dilemma involves gathering the facts and checking the Code and its Guidance
Document (a background document that helps interpret the Code of Ethics).
The ethical options and implications should then be discussed with colleagues.
Following these steps creates the ethical consensus that will ensure consistent,
sound decision-making in the organization.
Consulting the experts
If a resolution can not be reached, the Ethics Review Committee can help.
This Committee was established in the Fall of 1997 to follow up on any
allegations related to the Canadian Council for International Co-operation
(CCIC) Code of Ethics, and to act as a sounding board for questions of
an ethical nature from member organizations. The Committee is comprised
of external ethics experts and it reports to the CCIC Board.
Three types of statements
How the Committee proceeds once it receives a question or concern depends
on the nature of the issue, since there are three different types of statements
in the Code.
These three types of statements form a continuum, from shared vision to
high principles to good housekeeping. This is a useful continuum
-- many organizational codes contain a vision that goes beyond strictly
ethical concerns to lay out the substantive goals of the organization;
the vision is followed by some universal ethical principles, and some detailed
rules specific to the organization.
The vision of development
sets out ideals that focus on the poor, on environmental and economic
sustainability, and on the equitable distribution of power and wealth.
Ethical principles relate
to such things as fair and impartial governance, integrity, transparency,
appropriate use of funds, accountability to donors, and truth in fundraising.
The specific rules of conduct include, for example, that each organization
shall have an independent, active, and informed Board, that each organization
shall submit an audited financial statement to CCIC within ninety days
of its AGM, and that all fundraising contracts shall be put into writing.
The nature of each type of statement
The crucial point here is that the Ethics Review Committee must use different
procedures to deal with questions and concerns involving each of these
types of statements.
The vision is an ideal
which member organizations must approach together with their partners -- it is
by its nature an area where understanding is required and where compromise may
be called for. The vision gives a direction; taking small steps in that
direction may be all that is possible in some circumstances.
The ethical principles are goals to be attained. Conflicting principles, such as
transparency and confidentiality, need to be balanced. Judgment is
called for in applying the principles in everyday decision-making.
Member organizations are expected to do their very best to live up to the
spirit of these principles at all times.
The rules of conduct are straightforward "doís" and "doníts".
They involve good housekeeping, and compliance is a must. However,
the interpretation of the rules may require some adjustment if effective
new ways to keep house are introduced.
Separating the three types of statements
The vision, or credo, of CCIC occupies its own part of the Code.
However, the ethical principles and rules of conduct are found together
in another part. This can be somewhat confusing if the distinctions
between the two kinds of statements are not kept firmly in mind.
For example, in the fundraising section it states that the Board of
each organization must exercise prudent judgement in its stewardship responsibilities.
Prudence, judgement, stewardship and responsibilities are not defined --
they must be understood as a reasonable person would understand them.
We have here a classic ethical principle.
The Code also states that donors must have access to the organizationís
most recently audited financial statements. This is a classic rule
of conduct -- donors either have access to the books or they donít.
For the ethical principle of prudent stewardship, the Guidance Document
goes on to explain that respect for donors must be demonstrated by competent
use of contributions, and that operating costs should be kept to a minimum.
For the simpler rule of conduct on financial statements, the Guidance Document
has nothing further to add.
The Committee process
What are the different procedures that the Ethics Review Committee uses
for questions and concerns on the three types of statements in the Code?
Questions about conformity to the vision will be judged primarily on the basis of the
vision statement itself, and less on universal ethical principles. The
Committee will ask member organizations to describe their understanding of the
vision, and their path to realizing it with their partners. A key test
will then be reasonableness.
Questions and concerns about violations of the ethical principles call for ethical reasoning --
applying the principles as understood by reasonable persons to a concrete
situation. The Committee will, with the help of CCIC staff, obtain
relevant documentation from those involved. The Committee members will
then deliberate until a consensus emerges.
Questions about compliance with the rules of conduct will involve
checking of facts by CCIC staff and the organization concerned. The
matter could be resolved at this stage, with minimal involvement of the
Committee. In a more complex case, the Committee would seek a reasonable
application of the rules, and propose an amendment to the Guidance Document
Most real cases and queries from organizations can be expected to involve
ethical principles as well as rules of conduct. Issues are considered by
the Committee in confidence, and a recommendation is developed. In
the case of concerns, the complainant and the organization involved are
informed of the Committeeís decision. When action is recommended,
the Committee keeps in touch with the case until appropriate steps are
taken; if these are not taken, the Committee would inform the CCIC Board
of the problem.
CCIC, along with its members, is taking action on organizational integrity.
Resting on past achievements, however, is not an option. The process
of making the Code of Ethics into a living document, and making ethical
decision-making an integral part of the life of an organization, is a never-ending
Adapted from Au Courant, vol. 7, no. 3, August 1998.
Please do not reproduce without permission.
What's Workplace Ethics? | Discovering
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This page updated 13 May 99.