Does Your Association Need An Ethics Program?
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There is growing interest in accountability both
in Canada and elsewhere. Along with it comes a demand for clear
strategic intent, measurement systems, risk management models
and policies for ethical boundaries.
Ethical boundaries may be set by a variety of factors such as
organizational values, policies and practices, individual employee
professionalism obligations, and requirements by external parties
such as specific stakeholders, community and government.
Given the current level of interest and literature on the topic,
organizations have an opportunity to proactively improve or develop
ethics programs. There is a lot of merit in developing an ethics
program, especially if one thinks about potential liabilities
and litigation that may result from a serious error or omission
in service. Government, in the interest of the public, may get
involved in regulation and policy around ethical practice for
associations if the association community fails to develop its
own effective ethics programs.
Having an ethics program may provide a perception that there
is a greater degree of public protection, greater concern for
members, and a strong organization that is serious about how it
goes about achieving its mission. Many ethics programs relate
to members, but few have developed ethical codes for volunteers
and employees of their associations.
What is an ethics program?
An ethics program is a collection of strategies, policies, practices
and measures that attempt to guide human conduct. Informal ethics
program activity often exists in organizations, but assumptions
and uncertainty most likely exists. An ethics program is often
recognized by a formal code of standards and related practices
that is reviewed and understood by all those expected to comply
Moral cornerstones form the foundation of an ethics program.
It includes a link between mission and a code of ethics, stakeholders,
code of conduct and code of practice and an administration component.
Ethics programs require communications support to ensure awareness
and education and training to maximize compliance.
There may be different codes in an ethics program. For example:
Code of Ethics. These statements define the
organization in terms of what it is and what it stands for.
Code of Conduct. These statements provide an
organization with specific direction and policies on what its
stakeholders must and must not do.
Code/Standards of Practice. These statements
detail specific procedures that an organization undertakes on
an ongoing basis to ensure that its ethics polices (as detailed
in the Code of Conduct) are upheld.
There are many ethics program topics. This column will focus
on policies that support codes around conflict of interest and
confidentiality for volunteers and staff.
The objective of a Conflict of Interest Policy for staff, board
of directors and committee members is to provide direction in
avoiding conflict of interest situations. The policy may state
that no staff, directors or committee members may derive any personal
profit or gain, directly or indirectly, by reason of their participation
with the association, beyond contracted arrangements or provisions
in the by-laws. Accordingly, individuals must arrange their affairs,
in public and in private, to prevent any real, perceived or potential
conflict of interest.
The application of the policy spells out what a conflict could
be and what should be done in the event a situation occurs. Conflicts
often relate to access to information. Policy application for
confidentiality will often indicate that no volunteer or staff
may take advantage of or use to their benefit any information
not generally available to the public that they obtain in the
course of their official duties with the association. Nor should
they disclose such information to a partner, business associate
or a close family member. Similarly, they may not disclose confidential
information obtained through the course of their duties and responsibilities
for the association without proper authorization.
Should board members be required to sign a Confidentiality
and Disclosure Agreement?
This issue has been addressed by students in the Association
Operations – I Course of the Association Management Education
Program. Most agree that an agreement should be signed, and this
is, in fact, the case in associations represented by students
in the course. While an orientation may occur in which the policy
is reviewed and sometimes discussed, the reality is that affixing
a signature conveys certain legitimacy. The agreement binds board
members in a common practice and strengthens board members' allegiances
to their fellow board members (during their tenure in office)
and to the board as an institution of the association (once they
are out of office). Board members need to know that they can speak
freely during discussion periods, especially those held "in
camera". Agenda material may also contain confidential information.
Board members have a fiduciary responsibility, which includes
managing risk. There is limited risk in having directors sign
an agreement, but a greater risk occurs if directors do not. An
example is a director who leaks confidential information to the
press because he did not personally agree with a stance taken
by the board. The impact of this leak on charitable donations
to the association was horrendous. It's prudent to remember that
there can indeed be significant costs to poor ethical policy and
In the case outlined above, once the board agreed to a position,
the dissenting director should have either kept quiet about their
disagreement, or resigned from the board if he simply couldn't
live with the decision. Directors are to serve in the best interest
of the organization. They are members of a board that makes decisions
for the association.
An association's level of commitment to developing and maintaining
an ethics program will determine its ethical outcomes. The basic
level involves developing a values statement for the association.
A higher level involves a formal ethics program that applies to
members and the public. The program also addresses volunteer and
staff training related to policies and practices that are designed
to prevent internal fraud, scandal, corruption, litigation and
If you would like to determine the state of your ethical program,
take this quick assessment. Based on each statement, determine
if your association needs improvement or requires no change.
- A Values Statement exists and is reviewed by appropriate
- Values and ethics are linked and strongly emphasized for
- Ethical codes/standards exist and are reviewed and understood
- by members
- Orientation and training support ethical policy and practices
- Ethical matters are treated in a comprehensive manner and
are part of a formal ethical program
- A Task Force reviews the formal ethical program every three
- Ethical behaviour is motivated through a reward system
- A whistle-blowing channel exists and provides protection
to those advocating ethical behaviour
If your association wants to reduce risk and uncertainty, improvements
to policies and practices should be undertaken to support an effective
ethical program. To take a leadership role in strengthening your
association's ethics program and its capacity to serve its members,
the first thing to do is document your current situation. Then
proceed to determine what some of the ethics trends and issues
and what other high performance associations are doing. An Internet
search using the words Canadian Ethics and/or Ethics Practitioners
Canada will yield valuable information.
This column features innovation and practical solutions applied
to challenges, trends, issue and opportunities for the association
community. Column editor Jim Pealow, MBA, CMA, CAE is a consultant
and the Association Management Education Program Lead Instructor/Coach
for CSAE. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.