Are corporate codes of conduct and codes of ethics a luxury or a necessity in todays toughand perhaps shrinkingglobal economy? Compliance may be costly and burdensome, but we feel strongly that it is crucial to success.
Employees at all levels face myriad ethical and behavioral challenges every day. Gray areas can often create an apparent conflict between building and growing the business and following the strictures of a code of conduct or code of ethics. In addition, employees sometimes grapple with real or perceived concerns that reporting possible code violations may have adverse business and career implications.
Yet for companies and employees alike, the investment in, presence of, and adherence to codes of conduct and codes of ethics provide important guidance and value. They enable employees to gain a much clearer understanding of permissible and measureable actions and behaviors, while allowing companies to demonstrate to regulators and other critical stakeholders that they are acting transparently and ethicallywhich in turn helps them to build a brand as an attractive employer and business partner.
As companies seek to enhance and clarify their compliance programs while reevaluating how best to allocate precious dollars, they may be tempted to wonder whether they need both a code of ethics and a code of conduct. We contend that they doand that a combined code of business ethics and conduct is preferable.
Codes of Conduct and Codes of Ethics: What's in a Name?
To develop an ethical corporate culture, compliance officers must engender an understanding of conduct that is against the rules and conduct that is ethically wrong. This means instilling a two-pronged organizational norm:
- Specific rules are followed.
- The corporate culture fosters compliance with fundamental organizational values.
A code of conduct provides black-and-white directions about what constitutes acceptable behavior. What is permissible? What is prohibited? What will cost an employee his or her job? It's about rules.
A code of ethics is about values. What guiding principles underpin decision-making within the organization? What ethical standards should employees follow if a situation arises that falls outside the rules spelled out in the code of conduct? The code of ethics also extends beyond employees to third-party stakeholders, such as officers, independent contractors, and subsidiary employees.
Combining Codes of Business Ethics and Conduct
Combined codes bridge the gap between what's legal and what's ethical [see sidebar, Cases in Point]. Mere compliance with an organizations written bylaws, or even a governmental regulation or law, doesn't necessarily mean that one has acted ethically. Rules, ultimately, have limits. The rules in a code of conduct can be too specific, and thus fail to cover the full range of circumstances confronting an organization, thereby falling short of providing adequate direction. A code of ethics can fill that void and help confirm that employees abide by not only the entity's rules, but also its values. By the same token, an organization's ethical guidelines can be too general to provide an intelligible principle. Either extreme can undermine efforts to develop and maintain an ethical culture.
It also makes sense from a practical perspective to consolidate the codes for clarity, brevity, and ease of implementation. Business, like life, is not static. Amendments, adaptations, and adjustments can more easily and successfully be made to a combined code. When revising a code of conduct, general ethical principles should be used to address the omitted behavior. Such revision is made easier through a combined code, especially if an organizations ethical standards also need to evolve.
While some organizations still have only codes of conduct, or separate codes of conduct and codes of ethics, we see growing recognition of the value of combined codes. The New York Stock Exchange, for example, now requires that listed companies use combined codes. Similarly, the federal government, which spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year on contracts, has required since 2009 that nearly all of its subcontractors and contractors adopt written combined codes.
Under U.S. Federal Sentencing Guidelines, the government also promotes ethics training programs for those who work for and on behalf of a company. It also sees an effective compliance and ethics program as a potentially mitigating factor that can trigger penalty reductions in the event an organization faces government sanctions or fines (U.S. Sentencing Guidelines, § 8B2.1(a)-(c) (2012); Manual, § 8C2.5(f)(1) (2010); and § 8B2.1(a)). Establishing procedures to help promote compliance with the Sentencing Guidelines is best done through a combined code, including a statement of the companys fundamental principles, addressing what it views as right and wrong to guide decision-making and provide for compliance with the law through the specific delineation of required and prohibited behaviors.
Complicated ethical situations require more nuanced guidance than a stand-alone code of conduct can provide.
A combined code of business ethics and conduct should contain, in addition to explicit instructions concerning specific rules and conduct, a statement of the organizations fundamental values and ethical principles that an employee should keep in mind when contemplating any decision. In addition, the combined code should instruct employees to report concerns about possible violations of the code to appropriate individuals beyond their supervisors, including, but not limited to, the companys compliance/ethics office or officials.
The combined code should also inform employees that they will be protected from retaliation for good-faith reporting of alleged violations and that furthermore, the company has an anonymous ethics hotline for reporting suspected misconduct.
An ethical culture cannot be created merely through rules-based direction. A combined code of business ethics and conduct provides effective guideposts for behavior by tying specific rules to the companys values and ethical commitments, to enhance the likelihood that employees will make ethical decisions consistent with the code and the employer's values.
Suzanne R. Folsom is the executive vice president, general counsel, and chief compliance officer at ACADEMI LLC, a leading provider of defense, training, security, and logistics services. She previously served as the VP, chief regulatory and compliance officer, and deputy general counsel for American International Group, where she created AIGs first global compliance framework during the financial crisis; and as counselor to the president of the World Bank and director of its Department of Institutional Integrity, where she led anticorruption efforts affecting all aspects of the banks lending activity.
Victoria McKenney is the director of regulatory and compliance and associate general counsel at ACADEMI LLC. Prior to joining ACADEMI, she was a senior associate at Hogan Lovells U.S., and during the financial crisis served on secondment in the Office of the Chief Regulatory and Compliance Officer at AIG, where she assisted in establishing an internationally recognized regulatory and compliance program.
Glenn T. Ware is a principal with PricewaterhouseCoopers International Limited and co-leader of its anticorruption and corporate intelligence practice group. An international lawyer by training, Mr. Ware holds an LL.M. from Harvard Law School and is a captain in the United States Navy. During his 24 years of active duty and reserve time, Mr. Ware focused his practice on international, national security, and criminal law matters, and has held numerous foreign and domestic postings, including, more recently, deputy legal counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Todd Garland, a former law clerk at ACADEMI LLC, assisted with this article.