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.

The Caviart Group Takes its Bow

Clarence “Buck” Chaffee, the consultant who helped us (hugely!) to launch our certification program, sent out this press release. Take a bow, Buck!

June 3, 2011

For Immediate Release
Clarence “Buck” Chaffee
The Caviart Group

Vienna, VA – The Society for Technical Communication (STC) launched its new international certification program for technical communicators at their annual meeting in May. The program is the first certification for technical communicators. Developed with the guidance of The Caviart Group, the program utilizes an innovative, structured assessment of work samples.

According to Kathryn Burton, CAE, STC’s Executive Director/CEO, The Caviart Group has been invaluable in helping the organization create the certification system and developing the assessment process.

“This is our first certification program and we needed a trusted, independent partner to work with us in creating a valid, legally defensible certification program,” she said. “We engaged The Caviart Group because of their extensive expertise in performance-based assessment and their experience in developing certification programs from the ground up. With their help, we were able to address a myriad of complex questions and develop and launch our program in less than eight months! Our members are very excited about the new credential and we could not be happier with the advice and service that we have received from The Caviart Group.”

Clarence “Buck” Chaffee, President of The Caviart Group, commented on the importance and challenges associated with creating a legally defensible work product assessment process. “STC had determined that they needed a performance examination to assess the complex, high-level skills required of technical communicators. Given the diversity of practice areas and communications techniques, a portfolio assessment process was desired,” said Chaffee. “The problem with traditional portfolio review processes is that each submission is different and may or may not exhibit the skills you want to assess. Different submissions are also of varying degrees of complexity and it is hard to ensure that all candidates are being evaluated for the same level of skill.”

According to Chaffee, The Caviart Group solved these problems and ensured content validity by conducting a study to define the skills required to perform the job and then defining a process through which candidates submit portions of work samples with written commentaries to demonstrate and support their claim that they possess the required skills.

“This is much different than a typical portfolio review in which raters must plow through volumes of work to try to assess a candidate’s abilities,” says Chaffee. “Instead, we require candidates to create a number of short, very specific submissions. These submissions must demonstrate specific skills and must be accompanied by a written commentary that explains how the work sample demonstrates those skills. Both the work sample and the commentary are evaluated.”

To ensure uniform scoring and guard against bias, The Caviart Group created a scoring system that electronically distributes each submission to a number of subject matter expert raters. In total, candidates may have as many as 18 subject matter experts involved in assessing their work.

“We have created human-scored examinations for more than 30 years,” said Chaffee. “This assessment process has been built on that experience to provide an assessment that is fair and accurate and will stand up to all testing industry standards. We are very pleased that STC selected The Caviart Group to help them with this very interesting and challenging project.”

About STC

STC is the world’s largest and oldest professional association dedicated to the advancement of the field of technical communication. The Society’s members span the field of the technical communication profession and reach across every industry and continent. In fact, the Society has members in almost 50 countries and is continuing to grow rapidly outside of North America and Europe.

Through a growing global community, the Society and its members set the global standards for technical communication. The Society’s award-winning publications, Intercom and Technical Communication, are widely read in the field of technical communication, and its annual conference is one of the most-attended technical communication events of the year.


The Caviart Group is a partnership of leading experts in the field of certification and testing with extensive experience in managing large and complex national and international projects. The principals have more than 50 years of combined experience in creating and managing professional certification programs and in designing, developing, and administering occupational and professional examinations. They have been responsible for the examination of more than one million candidates in the U.S. and abroad in both paper-and-pencil and computer-based formats.

The company specializes in technology and advanced testing. Its broad service categories include certification and assessment services such as job analyses; examination design, development and delivery; psychometrics and examination audits; and business consulting services including strategic planning, new product development, and certification management system design and implementation.

The principals have conceived, developed, and grown several very successful national and international certification and licensure programs and are uniquely qualified and experienced with both traditional and cutting-edge technology.

The Caviart Group brings to every project not only the demonstrated experience and skill necessary to perform the tasks, but also the qualities of professionalism-character, integrity and judgment-needed to ensure the credibility of results. We also provide exceptional customer care and service. Our goal is to become an integral part of our client’s team and to establish a long-term relationship.

Current Projects

We are currently helping clients develop interactive simulated equipment in the medical and engineering technology fields. We are also creating video-based items, video capture of performance tests, audio response items, distributed scoring systems, advanced candidate management systems, and we are helping several clients create new certification programs from the ground up.

Contact us today to see what The Caviart Group can do for you!

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Copyright 2011, The Caviart Group, LLC

Certification: Open for business!

STC first discussed certification at the Annual Conference in San Diego—in 1964. We’ve discussed it, on and off, ever since, mainly because many people felt it was impossible to certify technical communicators. Well, thanks to the selfless efforts of a dedicated team that was my privilege to work with, I was pleased to announce at the opening session of the STC Summit in Sacramento that the STC certification program is open for business. As Walt Disney said, it’s kind of fun to do the impossible!

Please keep in mind that for all the time and effort it’s taken to reach this goal, this is just a starting point. Nothing is going to change overnight. But I truly believe that certification will be transformational, for the profession, for its practitioners, and for our society.

We will be posting details to the certification page on STC.org as soon as we can. If you’re reading this and want to know more before then, drop me a line.

Social media meets technical writing: two stories

It’s been a deeply snowy winter in Massachusetts, with many roofs collapsing under the strain. Our snowblower, a powerful but flimsy model by a manufacturer that shall remain nameless, stopped moving, so we bought a new drive belt, and one Saturday I tackled the replacement job. I followed the owner’s manual carefully, up to the step that read, “replace the belt.” There I got stuck, because in the cramped space I could find no way to get the old belt off.
Continue reading “Social media meets technical writing: two stories”