Is it time for your code’s MOT?

22 April 2020


It’s important to keep your code of ethics up to date, to ensure that it continues to reflect your organisation’s ethical values and business priorities, as well as current good practice.

My 2017-registered car will soon be due its first MOT. (The ‘MOT’ is an annual test of roadworthiness for most vehicles in Great Britain once they are three years old.) Although my car’s not looking its best after an unfortunate altercation with a wooden post in a car park, it hardly seems any time at all since I drove it home from the dealership, shiny and new.

Tempus fugit, as fun-loving Romans presumably said. But it’s not just fun that makes time fly. How often have you found yourself saying something like, ‘we did that a couple of years ago’ and then, on checking, discover to your surprise that it was more like five or six years since. I guess much of the explanation is our busy-ness. Time really does pass very quickly when you’re busy, not just when you’re having fun.

So, if I asked you when your organisation’s code of ethics was created or last reviewed, what would you say? Two or three years ago? If it’s really three years since, the IBE would recommend that it’s now time for a review anyway. And if, when you check, you’re shocked to find that it’s a lot longer ago than you thought, it’s definitely time to revisit your code. Of course, all this is assuming that you can easily find out when your code was last reviewed – which, by the way, is why we recommend dating different versions (not a practice that’s always followed).

When it comes to needing a refresh, it’s not that your code of ethics has experienced the kind of wear and tear that my car has been subject to on the road (not to mention that car park post!). However, it’s surprising how quickly and how far a code can drift from what it could and should be, as your business and the challenges it faces change, and as good practice continues to develop. 

So, what should you do? First, find yourself a bit of space and give your code a good, fresh read at one go. If you’ve dipped in and out but not read it front to back for a while, you might be surprised by what you notice. Probably you’ll be quite pleased with most of what you find there. Much of it will have stood the test of time. But it’s surprising how easily some material, including illustrative examples, can become dated.

Second, think about setting up a group of people with a stake in the code to provide feedback. It would make sense for these people to come from different functions and levels of the organisation, perhaps mirroring processes that were used when the code was first developed. 

Third, see what evidence has been collected, or could be put together, about the effectiveness of the current version. For example, what issues have been brought up by users of the ethics advice hotline or the Speak Up facility? What about issues that have featured in disciplinary cases, appraisal discussions (hopefully these cover ethics) and exit interviews? What feedback has been received from stakeholders such as customers or suppliers? Finally, how would you rate your organisation’s ‘ethical performance’? All these can provide valuable indicators of areas of the code to consider strengthening.

Fourth, have your organisation’s strategy or the nature of its business changed and so introduced new ethical risks or priorities? For example, if you are a manufacturer and have begun using the internet to sell direct to the public for the first time, shouldn’t that be reflected in your code? 

Fifth, what ethical issues have arisen externally that are relevant to your business? For example, how are the ethical risks related to digital technologies (AI, big data etc) and social media addressed in the code? Another example: does your code reflect the fast-paced change related to thinking about diversity? It might be worth scanning the resources available on the IBE website to see if there are any emerging issues that should be considered in the next iteration of your code.

Finally, you can learn from what other companies are doing. At the IBE, we maintain a stock of examples of good practice for when we’re engaged to review a code, and we can also benchmark your code against an agreed set of other organisations’ codes. If you would be interested in this, please let us know. We’d be happy to give your code an MOT. 


Professor Chris Cowton
Professor Chris Cowton

Associate Director (Research), IBE,

Chris brings his vast experience of researching business ethics issues to the work of the IBE Research Hub, with a remit to strengthen its widely respected applied research and a specific role of further developing our engagement with higher education. 

Chris Cowton is Emeritus Professor at the University of Huddersfield and Visiting Professor at Leeds University’s Inter-Disciplinary Ethics Applied Centre. He was previously Professor of Accounting (1996-2016), Professor of Financial Ethics (2016-2019) and Dean of the Business School (2008-2016) at Huddersfield, having joined after ten years lecturing at the University of Oxford.

He is internationally recognised for his contributions to business ethics, especially his pioneering work on financial ethics.  In 2013 he was awarded the University of Huddersfield’s first DLitt (Doctor of Letters, a higher doctorate) in recognition of his contribution to the advancement of knowledge in business and financial ethics.

He is the author of more than 60 journal papers, has edited three books and has written many book chapters. He was Editor of the journal Business Ethics: A European Review for a decade (2004-2013).

He is also a visiting professor at University of the Basque Country, Bilbao (Spain), and has been a visiting professor at the University of Bergamo (Italy) and a member of the Ethics Standards Committee of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (2009-2018).

You can read Chris's extensive bibliography here

Discussion of ethics in public life, including business, often makes unhelpful sweeping generalisations that take us nowhere. ‘Politicians are only in it for themselves’, ‘businesses manipulate consumers’, etc. Such comments describe one end of a spectrum, perhaps, but they do a disservice to those who are trying to do so much better. The IBE plays a key role, in supporting high standards of business behaviour and I am delighted to use my research expertise to contribute to that mission.

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