Ethical Performance
inside intelligence for responsible business


Yes, let’s have a professional code – but it needs teeth from the outset

October 2009

One of the issues raised by the bizarre unfair dismissal case brought by CSR practitioner Tim Nicholson against his former employers (see page one), is whether a code of practice for the corporate responsibility profession might have helped him avoid the conflict.

Such a code is currently being constructed by the UK-based Corporate Responsibility Group (CRG), and it might be an idea for its drafters to say something about how practitioners ought to behave when they find themselves frustrated in their sustainability aims.

An early version of the code put out to consultation in the summer (EP11, issue 2, p1) talked about the need for CSR people to exhibit ‘appropriate behaviour in all business, professional and related personal activities’ and to ‘seek to enhance the standing, proficiency and good name of the profession’. It would have been interesting, had the code already been finalized, to see how Nicholson might have been judged against these requirements.

Unfortunately the CRG looks likely to decide that the code will not be used in such a judgmental way. It says it wants to put the document into the public domain, and that it would like it to be used around the world. But it also wants to ‘avoid any implications of an expectation of formal compliance’ and has made it clear that the code will only be offered as ‘guidance’. The CRG, as it stands, does not intend to expend great effort on policing it.

It is easy to see why it would like to move down this essentially non-committal route. Policing a code is fraught with all kinds of difficulties – and expense. But if a code is worth having, then it is worth enforcing. And it will have little influence if there is no evidence of people being held to account against its demands.

Other organizations have been down this route before and have reluctantly had to change direction. The United Nations, for instance, set out steadfastly to ensure that its Global Compact should not be backed up by any disciplinary infrastructure or threats of expulsion. But it was quickly forced to adopt ‘integrity measures’ that have imposed increasingly tough penalties on backsliders. And it is now having to adopt a similar stance on its Principles for Responsible Investment.

Creating a code of conduct for CSR professionals is a worthy venture. It will provide practitioners with a global framework of expectations against which to chart their daily working life.

But it would be wise to acknowledge that any code needs teeth from the outset rather than hastily-commissioned dental work later on down the track.

Peter Mason | Global | Codes of conduct


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