This week our ethics class was asked to consider how a code of ethics may be “fundamentally flawed” because of the mismatch between moral choice and action in a business world driven by competition and hierarchy. Regardless of any organization’s formal statement of business ethics or practices, the reality is revealed in its organizational culture. Culture functions rather like an iceberg, mostly operating below the radar, and causing a rude awakening when one runs aground the hidden notions and unstated beliefs of an operationalized code of conduct.
Wood and Rimmer state, “The concept of ‘commitment’ to codes is not a simple idea that can be translated into a solitary quantitative measure. Rather it is a complex idea that can be approached from a number of different directions (2003, p. 191).”
Ladies and gentlemen, I submit for your viewing pleasure and further consideration this lovely example of what Wood and Rimmer are discussing:
Elizabeth: Wait! You have to take me to shore. According to the Code of the Order of the Brethren…
Barbossa: First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate’s code to apply and you’re not. And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. Welcome aboard the Black Pearl, Miss Turner.
As Wood and Rimmer point out (p. 191), “Having a code is not enough to ensure commitment to the code. It must be intertwined into the daily life of the organisation. It should not be an ornament of the organisation, but the catalyst for an entire program of business ethics within organisations that engenders better practices in the marketplace.”
Entertainment factor notwithstanding, is the PoC segment really so far off from how organizations tend to operate in today’s world? A formal code of ethics, frequently referred to, called upon, held up as a measuring rod . . . but used only in the most general of ways when applied to one’s daily conduct, decisions, actions in life?
Apparently, some other professional organizations agree with the guidelines idea so succinctly stated by Barbossa:
- Emphasis on enforcement of the Code has been eliminated. But, the PRSA Board of Directors retains the right to bar from membership or expel from the Society any individual who has been or is sanctioned by a government agency or convicted in a court of law of an action that fails to comply with the Code.
- The RTDNA Code of Ethics does not dictate what journalists should do in every ethical predicament; rather it offers resources to help journalists make better ethical decisions – on and off the job – for themselves and for the communities they serve.
Enron provides some notable case examples of just why it is important to have a match between a code of ethics and an accountable code of conduct. In Management Communication Quarterly (August 2003), a case study on Enron’s collapse, points out a few key issues that companies ought to consider:
- “Individuals and groups have morally based obligations and duties to others and to larger ethical, moral, and legal codes, standards and traditions” (p. 60).
- Organizations have a responsibility to operate according social norms and standards, and to “support the general health and well-being of society” (p. 61).
- Leadership provides the moral model by which an organization’s operations and culture are defined and informed.
- Dissent and opposing views and opinions must not only be tolerated but attended to in order to proactively identify and address issues of concern.
Enron’s “aggressive growth and rapid exploitation of new opportunities and technologies” (p. 70) without leadership’s consistent and thoughtful attention to “fulfilling . . . responsibilities by actively modeling or communicating a set of broad social values associated with ethical and moral conduct” (p. 71), set the stage for eventual collapse. Periods of turbulent change and growth challenge individuals and organizations to stay the course and adhere to the rudder of ethical constraints at the best of times; however, Enron’s leaders displayed an astonishing capacity for hedonism, clearly privileging “norms and values regarding abuse of power, privilege, deception, wealth, greed, and rule breaking” (p. 72).
A final thought on ethics and conduct, from the American Advertising Federation code: “The one constant is transparency, and the need to conduct ourselves, our businesses, and our relationships with consumers in a fair, honest, and forthright manner.”
Words, anyone? We are only as ethical as our actual conduct expresses.