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.

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 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.

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?

Real cases

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 one.


Adapted from Au Courant, vol. 7, no. 3, August 1998.

Please do not reproduce without permission.

What's Workplace Ethics? | Discovering Discourse Ethics | Benefits of Case Discussions | Codes of Conduct: Panacea or Bunk? | Index of articles


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This page updated 13 May 99.