We all know what it feels like to read a vague syllabus. You know the one…deadlines aren’t yet set, assignments aren’t explicit and it’s difficult to see the pathway to success. Without specific direction, it is difficult to truly understand expectations. As human beings, we best function by knowing what is expected of us from those in authority. We want to know how we should act in certain situations in order to avoid consequences. This is why having a code of ethics is useful to an organization, but a code of conduct produces results.
Codes of ethics are like the aforementioned syllabus—helpful but inexplicit. Codes of conduct, on the other hand, are like the syllabus that lays it all out like a road map: time of submission, font sizes, heading location, page number formatting….and they are usually about 10 pages long. This may be too detailed for some, but in general, it is a clear guide for success. The “Code of Ethics” for the American Society for Horticultural Science (ASHS) is, in my opinion, a great example of when a code of ethics and code of conduct are combined. It contains both enforceable and non-enforceable directives. For example, in Article II: Relation of Professional to the Public, ASHS states, “A Registrant shall avoid and discourage sensational, exaggerated, and/or unwarranted statements that might induce participation in unsound enterprises.” What does this even mean? An average reader, unfamiliar with such jargon, would not truly understand implied expectations from this statement. Thus, it would be difficult to know when one is not abiding by this specific ethical code. In addition, this statement would also be difficult to enforce by those in authority. In contrast, “A Registrant shall not divulge information given in confidence” (Article III: Relation of Professional to Employer and Client) is straightforward and enforceable. So, in a way, this Code of Ethics actually seems to be instructions for both ethics and conduct, combining abstract and concrete specifications for success and/or consequences.
Therefore, I have concluded having both codes (Ethics and Conduct; vague and concrete) in one document could be very useful to an organization. It allows for subjectivity and discretion on the readers part, while also explicitly describing admissible and non-admissible behaviors. In doing so, the organization can come across as just authoritative enough, while also showing that they trust the reader’s view of ethical behavior. By giving the reader a few ambiguous rules, there is room for self-regulation. Thus, like ASHS’ Code of Ethics, sometimes just the right mix of direction and self-discretion is the best recipe for success.