Ethical Performance
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editorial

This code of conduct is a good start, but it needs more clarity all round

March 2010

Publication of a code of conduct for CSR practitioners (see page one) should be cause for celebration. Certainly it ought to be seen as a pioneering effort to set standards for a profession that is reaching maturity. But the first stab in this direction by the Corporate Responsibility Group (CRG) is little more than a collection of motherhood and apple pie exhortations.

To be sure, some of its advice – keeping up with advances in technical knowledge and striving for professional competence – starts to get down to brass tacks. But saying that practitioners must act always within the law, contractual obligations and regulations is stating the obvious. Shouldn't everyone in business? What this code does not yet deal with are the specific challenges to which CSR managers may be exposed, possibly more than other workers, by the nature of their job: how to face the power relationships within their companies, how to address professional dilemmas, how to resolve personal and corporate conflicts of interest.

That said, this is a document in the making, and future versions will undoubtedly improve on it, perhaps even illustrated by case studies. The more fundamental question for the future is who should own a code of conduct in order to make it effective. The CRG is a corporate network, but the subjects of this code are individuals – employees of CRG members.

The group reserves the right to suspend the membership of a company if a CSR professional employed by that company fails to live up to the spirit of the code. Presumably the CRG sees to it that the company culture of its members doesn't in any way discourage employees from behaving in the way they should – for example, no bullying and no reason for employees to fear they might get the chop if they blow the whistle on their employer's misconduct. Presumably, too, the CRG is big enough that the prospect of suspending a member, whose fees help to support it, will not cloud its judgement.

Assuming all that, in order to make suspension a credible threat, the CRG would have to be in the position to prove not only that the employee had failed to live up to the spirit of the code, but that the employer had been aware of this failure and had done nothing about it. Short of manifest malfeasance, it is hard to see what in practice would evidence a failure to be 'encouraged' to follow the broad precepts outlined in this code as it stands.

The present weaknesses of the code notwithstanding, the CRG deserves credit for bringing to the fore the basic issues of professional norms, and by whom and how they should be policed. But it signals that the time has come for practitioners to think about following other professions in creating their own institutions, codes, professional qualifications and accreditations.




Peter Mason | Global | Codes of conduct

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