Considerations For Writing A Code Of Ethics

by Chris MacDonald, Ph.D.

  Considerations For Writing A Code Of Ethics
By Chris MacDonald, Ph.D.
(originally published in Gene Marks, ed., Streetwise Small Business Book of Lists,
Adams Media 2006)

Most major corporations, and many smaller companies, now have Codes of Ethics,
along with a range of other, issue-specific ethics documents. Such a document
embodies the ethical commitments of your organization; it tells the world who you are,
what you stand for, and what to expect when conducting business with you. The content
of a Code, and the process for writing it, can vary quite a lot, but here are some of the
standard issues to consider.

1. Tailor-make your code.

Ideally, a Code of Ethics should be custom-made for your organization. Ask yourself,
what makes your Code specific to your organization? Is there anything that differentiates
it from similar documents devised other firms in your field, or in other fields? If not, what
makes it your Code, other than the fact that your logo is at the top?

2. Get employees involved.

The people who will be guided by the code should be actively involved in writing it. If
your organization is too large to get everyone involved, consider selecting
representatives from various departments or various business units. The document is
bound to be more meaningful, and find higher levels of acceptance, if employees are
part of the process.

3. Consult key stakeholders.

It’s a good idea to consult key stakeholders – including, for example, customers,
suppliers, and local community groups – as to what they think should be in your Code.
This will help reveal what important external constituencies see as your key obligations,
and will help make sure that the Code you write deals with the full range of issues that
might confront your organization.

4. Outsource the job only carefully.

Hiring a consultant to help write your code can be useful – but don’t let them take over. A
consultant can bring a wealth of knowledge and experience, and can help you avoid a
whole range of pitfalls, from lack of clarity through to the inclusion of too little – or too
much – detail. But at the end of the day, this Code is still yours: it should reflect your
organization’s values, principles, and aspirations.

5. Seek out good examples.

If you’re writing your own code, begin by looking at relevant examples. There are lots of
good Codes out there (a quick internet search can be very revealing.) A code that is
simply copied from another organization is unlikely to provide either effective guidance
or inspiration – but there’s also no point in reinventing the wheel.

6. Be clear about Scope.

Your Code should make clear who within your organization will be governed by it. Does
it cover everyone from the mailroom through to the boardroom? Only senior managers?
Who has to sign off on it? Keep in mind that lower-level employees may not take very
seriously a document that senior managers either aren’t bound by, or take lightly.

7. Be specific about implementation.

How will the Code be implemented? Once it’s written, will it gather dust, or will it
influence policy and practice? What procedures are in place to make sure that writing a
Code is more than just organizational navel-gazing? An effective implementation
scheme (perhaps as an appendix to the Code) will explain to all concerned how the
values embodied in your Code will be put into practice.

8. Plan for education.

A key aspect of implementation has to be employee training and education. How will
employees be educated about the Code? A Code can only be effective if your
employees know about it. Will new employees receive training regarding the Code’s
requirements? Will current employees receive refresher courses? Especially for large
organizations, the steps required to train employees on the requirements of a Code
deserve special attention.

9. Be clear about enforcement.

How, if at all, will the Code be enforced? Are there specific penalties for violating the
Code, or is the Code merely there to provide guidance? Who will decide when an
employee has violated the Code – will that be up to the employees' immediate
supervisor, or will that be the exclusive domain of senior managers?

10. Specify a sunset date.

When will the code be reviewed and updated? Times change, and new issues come to
light, so consider specifying a date for revising and refreshing your Code.

You can also download a printable PDF version of this document here.

Chris MacDonald, Ph.D. – Chris MacDonald teaches philosophy at Saint Mary’s
University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He has published on a wide range of topics
in ethics, ranging from business ethics and professional ethics through health-care
ethics and ethical issues in new technologies. He also runs the world’s largest ethics
bookstore, which can be found on-line at, as well as a
popular webpage on Codes of Ethics, at

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