Who uses a code of conduct? You’d be surprised

The economist Rick O’Sullivan was asked by STC a few years ago to study the common elements of professions. He found that a profession is distinguished by having a body of knowledge, a certification program, and a code of ethical conduct. STC responded by launching the Body of Knowledge effort, and I’ve talked about certification a lot here. But what’s a code of conduct, and what groups bother to use one anyway? I’ve looked into it, and what I found surprised me.

A code of conduct is “a set of conventional principles and expectations that are considered binding on any person who is a member of a particular group” (the freedictionary.com). STC has a Code of Ethics. But no enforcement mechanism is defined, so adherence is voluntary.

Since one of the certification guiding principles we adopted is that applicants must agree to follow the Code of Ethics, I thought certification solved our enforcement problem. Not so fast, advised Buck Chaffee, our certification consultant. While our ethical principles are fine and dandy, most codes of ethics, including STC’s, are aspirational but legally unenforceable. He advised us that we also needed a code of conduct. The difference between the two is that a code of ethics is aspirational, while a code of conduct is proscriptive, and clearly specifies unacceptable conduct and its consequences, including revocation of certification.

Why bother? Buck named other professions that lacked enforceable codes of ethical conduct and suffered embarrassment when a certified member was convicted of some infamous crime but couldn’t be kicked out for it. An enforceable code of conduct that members agree to follow provides the legal means to get rid of bad eggs. What sorts of transgressions can get one decertified? Sometimes it’s not such an obvious act as, say, defrauding a client; for some professions, even legal behaviors can be unacceptable. For example, financial planners can be decertified if they declare personal bankruptcy, because it ruins public confidence for a certified financial planner to go bankrupt.

Who uses codes of conduct? I looked on the Web and found some really interesting examples. Wikipedia’s list includes the Pirate Code of the Brethren of Bartholomew Robert from 1720. I’m not a pirate, but I’ve played one on stage, and I can actually support the dread pirate Robert’s code. He was an enlightened employer, and most of his rules of order can be found in employee handbooks to this day:

I. Every man has a vote in affairs of moment; has equal title to the fresh provisions, or strong liquors, at any time seized, and may use them at pleasure, unless a scarcity makes it necessary, for the good of all, to vote a retrenchment. (Profit sharing.)

II. Every man to be called fairly in turn, by list, on board of prizes: but if they defrauded the company to the value of a dollar in plate, jewels, or money, marooning was their punishment. (No embezzlement.)

III. No person to game at cards or dice for money. (No gambling.)

IV. The lights and candles to be put out at eight o’clock at night: if any of the crew, after that hour still remained inclined for drinking, they were to do it on the open deck. (Curfew.)

V. To keep their piece, pistols, and cutlass clean and fit for service. (Clean workspace.)

VI. No boy or woman to be allowed amongst them. If any man were to be found seducing any of the latter sex, and carried her to sea, disguised, he was to suffer death. (Sexual harrassment policy? No, just trying to avoid fights.)

VII. To desert the ship or their quarters in battle, was punished with death or marooning.

VIII. No striking one another on board, but every man’s quarrels to be ended on shore, at sword and pistol. (No workplace violence—take it offline.)

IX. No man to talk of breaking up their way of living, till each had shared one thousand pounds. If in order to this, any man should lose a limb, or become a cripple in their service, he was to have eight hundred dollars, out of the public stock, and for lesser hurts, proportionately. (Accidental death and dismemberment insurance.)

X. The captain and quartermaster to receive two shares of a prize: the master, boatswain, and gunner, one share and a half, and other officers one and quarter. (Executive compensation program.)

XI. The musicians to have rest on the Sabbath Day, but the other six days and nights, none without special favour. (OK, this one surprised me…! I wonder if it was a good gig?)

Oh, and the Certification Code of Conduct? It’s included with the application materials, posted here.

Published by Steven Jong

I am a lifelong technical communicator, a Fellow of the Society for Technical Communication (STC), a former STC board member, and chair of the first STC Certification Commission. I occasionally blog about these and other topics.

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