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A Code of Ethics is an important part of creating an appropriate and honest professional environment. They define the ethical values of an organisation or community - how decisions are made, and how employees operate. They often also provide examples for employees and managers, of numerous possible situations and the values or principles which guide the beliefs and decision-making of individuals in these, and of the organisation as a whole.
These principles will not merely guide individual, on-the-job decisions, but they are also the foundation for organisational development and strategic projects. The Code of Ethics should, in practice, be the first thing which is referred to when a group or individual finds themselves needing to clarify whether their decision is the best for the organisation, and for the public as a whole. Areas which may potentially make up sub-sections of an Ethical Code include Honesty, Equality and Diversity, Conduct, and Confidentiality (when handling personal or valuable information).
Codes of Ethics have been in use in some shape or form for thousands of years - religious texts such as the Bible, Torah, and Quran are some of the oldest examples of ethical code. They set out an array of standards and values to which an individual is supposed to hold themselves accountable, and these values and beliefs continue to heavily influence public morality, ethics, and decision-making to this very day. Religious and spiritual ethical codes have also contributed heavily to the constitutions of many major modern world nations, and therefore will continue to influence how countries (the organisation) and their citizens and civil servant (the staff) operate.
Codes of Ethics are particularly important in organisations such as the police, and national government/civil service, in which employees are tasked with making incredibly difficult decisions, week-in, week-out, which heavily impact upon the public. These are the types of organisations that are therefore often held most accountable for the actions, and are under the utmost scrutiny with regards to ethics and practice. For example, the UK College of Policing announced their first Ethical Code in 2014, so that they can educate members and clarify the beliefs which go into organisational decision-making. As well as this, Ethical Codes can aid the reputation of an organisation, by improving their apparent honesty, integrity, and trustworthiness in the eyes of the public and employees, as it creates something by which they can be held accountable for decisions.
These Codes are therefore usually public information, available for anyone to read upon request, and will be the system and values to which the organisation will be held accountable should there be grounds for a complaint. There should, in general, also be a system in place for individuals to report any unprofessional behaviour, if they believe the code has been breached by any member of staff. Though they are related, and heavily influence one-another, a Code of Ethics is not to be confused with a Code of Conduct, which makes up part of an organisation's compliance, is usually only published and available to employees alone, and will describe in greater details specific actions which employees should take, and those which they should not, under certain circumstances.
Preferably, a Code of Ethics for an organisation will be laid down from the onset, allowing new start-ups to define the basis of their work. However, older organisations do not have this luxury; and also, values do continue to evolve and shift over time, as does organisational direction, so you must consider this if you are developing a Code of Ethics, whether you are a start-up or an established business. Organisational culture and Ethical Codes are intricately related: though your Code of Ethics contributes heavily to the organisational culture of a business, it is also sculpted by it over time. Be prepared to review your Code if the organisation is not matching those set out, or any become impractical for the modern working environment.
When designing an Ethical Code: consider first, what are the culture and beliefs of your organisation, or what do you envisage them being? If you are senior management, or the owner, you may heavily influence this and guide it towards a clear direction; but, the culture of the organisation is also defined by the individuals within it. Consult with other members of senior management, and other employees, consider what the important values are which drive their decision-making, and those which they consider to be particularly important to organisational integrity and success.
Values-based Ethical Codes require a significant degree of self-regulation from individuals across the organisation, though management staff will take a lot of responsibility for embedding these values in their teams. On arrival at an organisation, any new members should be briefed on the Code of Ethics, and provided with a copy. It is then the duty of managers to embed values throughout regular, everyday practices. This can include their behaviour when hiring or interviewing a new team member, the way they handle complaints, and the way they make decisions that are to be implemented by their team. All of these actions should be in line with the Code of Ethics, and should be exemplary in their nature, so that non-managerial individuals can easily follow suit.