A code of ethics that falls out of date can cause major problems during uncertain times. Which elements should associations focus on updating? Here are a few suggestions to consider.
The dynamic of what it means to be a member of an association is constantly changing, so an organization’s ethics code needs to keep pace.
Social media and virtual meetings have created new areas for potential ethical violations, for example, and issues such as the #MeToo movement are directing new focus on existing areas. Guidelines that were implemented even a few years ago may feel out of place.
Mariama S. Boney, CAE, CEO of Achieve More LLC and a member of ASAE’s Ethics Committee, said that an association’s ethics code should be updated frequently to keep up with the times.
“We should articulate our core values and ensure that the ethics code highlights our core values that need to be translated through the policies and procedures, and review the ethics code every one to two years,” Boney said.
So, where should an association start if it wants to update its code? Boney recommended referencing tools from the Ethics Toolkit [PDF] developed by ASAE’s Ethics Committee, which includes ways to adopt leading practices that emphasize consistency, transparency, and public accessibility to those standards.
“Associations need to first be clear about their goals and objectives for the code of ethics,” she said. “How does it connect to the bylaws or standing rules, especially if revoking membership is needed?”
Boney offered a few additional considerations for building an effective ethics code:
Assess which codes you need. Boney said some organizations prefer a code of conduct integrated with a code of ethics; others don’t. “Other associations will have two separate codes that complement each other. Of course, everyone has to determine which path is best based on their culture,” she added.
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Chart it out. When making an ethical decision, it’s important to have a guide. ASAE’s Ethics Toolkit includes a flowchart that lays out a decision-making process and how to create a standard process for ethical decision making. Boney said some topics are essential, including use of language, social media, behavior for video and conference calls, clarifying who represents the association, the limits and liabilities of using the association’s brand and name as a member, and how to preserve confidentiality.
Build a code that manages problems on the front end. It’s better that the code lays out a strategy for dealing with situations that emerge rather than leaving the board guessing. Boney shared an example in which fewer guidelines created an ongoing problem: “We had a member throw food on another at the annual meeting,” she explained. “The decision was made not to revoke the member’s membership. Two years later, they were sending nasty messages and cursing at national office staff. Then we finally placed communication restrictions on the member.” Having guidelines in place for handling situations will help to manage problems as they emerge. “If we don’t address the issues on the front end, the bad behavior will persist,” she said.
Make sure the process is clear. Confusion about the ethics code can create problems for an organization that may face competing concerns—something seen in the past year at the Romance Writers of America, which faced a member revolt after an ethics inquiry went awry. In a postmortem around the saga, it emerged that the association’s vague ethics standards played a role. Boney said that one way to prevent hiccups in a code of conduct is clarity of steps and processes. “In addition, having an external consultant involved when issues are raised can also help to keep the perspectives balanced and provide an avenue of support,” she said. “It is also essential to have the suite of supporting policies that align with the processes: Ensuring that social media policies, bylaws, and harassment and discrimination policies, in addition to the bylaws or standing rules, support the ethics code is critical.”
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