The DNA of an Outstanding Code of Conduct

Deborah Leipziger

29 Jun 2017


When we set up the multi-stakeholder working group for The Responsible Nano Code back in 2007 nanotechnologies were the Next Big Thing.  But during the process of its development we saw the field of synthetic biology evolving very quickly, stakeholders expressed interest in languishing technologies such as food irradiation, as issues of food waste grew in importance, and GM was back on the agenda in Europe.  AI and robotics were emerging and the term Responsible Innovation was unheard of, and if anything, was just part of the changing expectations of corporate social responsibility (which in company terms one could argue it still is.)


As part of the evolution from the Responsible Nano Code  to our Principles for Responsible Innovation

we invited stakeholders and some key experts in the wider area of governance to contribute to our thinking. We were pleased to explore soft governance issues with Deborah Leipziger, a codes of conduct expert (we first worked together on the labour standards code SA8000). She is the author of the Corporate Responsibility Code Book (3rd edition 2016) cataloguing the range of Codes of Conduct for business and I asked her to summarise for us what makes an outstanding voluntary initiative. I thought her response may be of interest to the science community as may her book for those who may not be aware of the many of the business focused voluntary initiatives out there.


When I considered the development of the Responsible Nano Code we did a pretty good job on Deborah’s criteria, though of course lack of funds meant it never left the starting blocks, so we failed miserably on the implementation phase, though it was most certainly developed with implementation in mind!


An outstanding code of conduct or standard has several characteristics:

  • It is clear and concise, and not complex.
  • It is flexible and dynamic.
  • It must be written with implementation in mind.
  • It should reference key standards.
  • It should elicit strong support from stakeholders.
  • It should contain mechanisms for addressing complaints and resolving disputes.
  • It should be based on a genuine desire to change.

Clarity and conciseness

An outstanding code of conduct does not seek to do too much. Clear and concise, it provides definitions for key terms. Clarity is one of the key variables, as the people tasked with implementing the code in a factory itself may not have a formal education. Clarity is essential for successful implementation of a code, as people will often see what they want to see in it. (This is why companies need to invest in high-quality translations of codes into local languages.)


Flexibility and dynamism

CR instruments need to be flexible and responsive. Thus, it is important not only that there be revisions to codes and standards but that the revisions do not occur too frequently. An outstanding code will promote innovation and breakthrough approaches in the workplace, and, as such, it too must be open to change. Flexibility need not be interpreted only in terms of changes to the standard itself; sometimes, highlighting issues in training or in guidance materials is a useful substitute to altering a code or standard.


Written with implementation in mind

A standard should define a clear process for achieving compliance and for demonstrating how this compliance is to be achieved. Standard-setters need to develop clear guidance material for people implementing standards. Likewise, a company that sets a code of conduct for its suppliers should also provide guidance and training on implementation. When it comes to standards, the “devil is in the details”.


Reference key standards

A code of conduct or standard should benefit from the experience of other standards, including normative standards such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and specific conventions of the International Labour Organisation. Standards do not occur in a vacuum.


Stakeholder support

Stakeholders need to be involved in the development of the code. Stakeholder participation is necessary not only to make the code or standard more legitimate but also to enhance its implementation. Stakeholders need to feel a sense of ownership of the code and its success.


Complaints and dispute resolution

Disputes will arise in most CR systems, given different cultures and different interpretations of CR instruments. The existence of disputes may be an indicator that they system is in fact being taken seriously by stakeholders. Complaints may constitute important feedback for the system and can signal a need to address issues differently. However, few standards and codes contain formal, written procedures for addressing complaints or for resolving disputes. An effective system for handling problems can avoid negative publicity, which can seriously threaten an emerging standard.


Desire to change

An outstanding code or standard is not enough in itself to make a difference. The key variable for a successful implementation process is the desire of the company to improve and provide evidence of its behaviour. Human rights expert Rory Sullivan explains:  “It is not the code itself that determines success. The key variable is the commitment of the company to change. If the company wants to be leading-edge a code can help it to achieve leading-edge results. If a company is just adopting a code in order to quell the concerns of the press or a pressure group, then the results will be mediocre.”


NB: This article was first published on the MATTER website in 2014.