58.1, February 2011

Cooperation or Compliance: Building Dialogic Codes of Conduct

Sam Dragga


Purpose: Adapting the ethics of philosopher Henri Bergson, this article offers a theory to explain the volatile legal-ethical environment in which codes of conduct operate and proposes that technical communicators adopt this theory to build dialogic codes of conduct.

Method: The article explicates and illustrates Bergson's theory of social and dynamic moralities (i.e., ethics as regulation of cooperative individuals and ethics as inspiration by heroic individuals) and offers a critical reading of three corporate codes of conduct from the perspective of this theory, emphasizing five factors: language emphasizing cooperation versus compliance, identification of authorship, clarity of ethical versus legal obligations, inclusion of humanizing pictorial images, and coverage of heroic individuals.

Results: None of the corporate codes of conduct examined truly exploit the immense rhetorical power of narrative or illustrations. None exclusively emphasize cooperation or entirely specify authorship. None are altogether lucid or consistent in separating legal and ethical issues. Existing practices yield a missed opportunity to inspire as well as stipulate ethical behavior.

Conclusion: Technical communicators are skilled in rhetoric, studied in ethics, and experienced in writing policies and instructions and in soliciting information from sources of knowledge and power. Technical communicators could thus be uniquely qualified to develop dialogic codes of conduct for corporations, industries, and professions.

Keywords: code of conduct; ethical; legal; I-thou relationships, verbal-visual communication

Practitioner's Takeaway

  • Corporate codes of conduct offer opportunities and challenges for technical communicators in their practice, in their teaching, and in their research.
  • Technical communicators could contribute their skills in both verbal and visual communication to making productive changes in corporate codes of conduct.

Organizations like to point to their code of conduct as evidence of their dedication to moral integrity in their operations, to high ethical standards for their employees, to genuine care for the health and safety of their customers, to community engagement and environmental responsibility. It is usually the focal point or bible of a wider ethics program that includes multiple resources (e.g., declarations of principles, frequently asked questions [FAQs], help lines for getting answers to specific questions and for reporting ethics violations).

The code of conduct also offers the organization partial insulation in case of unethical or illegal activities, especially by managers or executives, because the organization will claim that the individual's misbehavior was a violation of its explicit policies. Following a series of catastrophic improprieties by executives of several major corporations and the resulting passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX), the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 2003 directed public companies either to adopt a corporate code of conduct or explain why it was unnecessary to do so. Thereafter, in 2004, the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ specified that their listed public companies must adopt codes of conduct covering such topics as conflicts of interest, confidentiality of information, fair dealing with clients and suppliers, use of corporate assets, compliance with rules and regulations, and reporting of illegal or unethical behavior.

Corporate codes of conduct thus operate in a legal and ethical environment, addressing multiple audiences both inside and outside the organization (e.g., employees, prospective employees, shareholders, prospective shareholders, clients and customers, suppliers, political leaders, regulators and inspectors, industry officials, educators in related fields, community activists, ordinary citizens). And this intersection of the legal and the ethical generates a rhetorical situation of extraordinary volatility, with individuals navigating among principles and practices in four key sectors: ethical and legal, unethical and illegal, legal but unethical, and ethical but illegal (see Figure 1).

Obviously, a multiplicity of intersecting and shifting influences (e.g., job satisfaction, religious training, economic pressures, family expectations, pertinent social policies, experience of negative consequences for unethical behavior) might guide individuals in their navigation across the sectors of this environment and direct or disrupt their receptivity to the aspirations and regulations in a code of conduct. Stajkovic and Luthans (1997), for example, propose a triad of interanimating institutional, personal, and organizational variables, all themselves subject to cultural adaptation, while Cassell, Johnson, and Smith (1997) specify the key factors as the code itself (i.e., the issues covered and its process of composition and implementation), formal and informal controls of the organization, and individual influences of perception and self-regulation.

Figure 1. Four kinds of legal-ethical relationships

The research on codes of conduct is extensive, with almost exclusive focus on (1) processes for creating, implementing, and supporting codes (e.g., Helin & Sandström, 2008; Kaptein & Wempe, 1998; Lere & Gaumnitz, 2007; Nitsch, Baetz, & Hughes, 2005; Schwartz, 2002; Sethi, 2003); (2) issues covered in codes (e.g. Canary & Jennings, 2008; Carasco & Singh, 2003; Hite, Bellizzi, & Fraser, 1988; Kaptein, 2004; Lefebvre & Singh, 1996; Pollach, 2003; Silver, 2005; Singh, 2006; Wood, 2000), and (3) effectiveness of codes (e.g., Adams, Tashchian, & Shore, 2001; Cassell, Johnson, & Smith, 1997; Farrell, Cobbin, & Farrell, 2002; Kaptein & Schwartz, 2008; Lere & Gaumnitz, 2003; McKinney & Moore, 2008; Peterson, 2002; Schwartz, 2001, 2004; Somers, 2001; Stevens, 2008; Weller, 1988).

In addition, the Ethisphere Institute periodically assesses corporate codes of conduct using eight weighted criteria:

  • 5%: Public Availability (readily available to all stakeholders)
  • 15%: Tone from the Top (leadership visibly committed to values and topics covered)
  • 20%: Readability and Tone (easy to read and reflective of targeted audience)
  • 10%: Nonretaliation & Reporting (explicit nonretaliation commitment and dedicated resources available for reporting code violations)
  • 10%: Commitment & Values (embeds corporate values or mission language and identifies ethical commitments to stakeholders)
  • 20%: Risk Topics (addresses all key risk areas for company's given industry)
  • 5%: Comprehension Aids (provides comprehension aids: e.g., Q&As/FAQs, checklists, examples, case studies)
  • 15%: Presentation & Style (inviting layout, fonts, pictures, taxonomy, and structure)

According to Helin and Sandström's (2007) review of research, almost all studies of codes of conduct are limited to reporting the findings of surveys, interviews, and discourse analyses, and little effort is given to theorizing—either theories of ethics or theories of codes of conduct: “The explicit use of theory, except for a few studies, is rare” (p. 261). (A noteworthy exception is Paine's 1994 discussion of “compliance strategies” that focus on deterrence and detection versus “integrity strategies” that emphasize the unifying power of guiding principles.) In addition, the evidence of efficacy is ambiguous: Of 79 empirical studies examined by Kaptein and Schwartz (2008), “35% of the studies have found that codes are effective, 16% have found that the relationship is weak, 33% have found that there is no significant relationship, and 14% have presented mixed results” (p. 113).

Theorizing Codes of Conduct

The challenge is thus to offer a theory that explains the volatile legal-ethical environment in which codes of conduct operate and develop codes of conduct according to this guiding theory. I propose that the writings of philosopher Henri Bergson (1932/1954) offer us this theory.

According to Bergson, to function within a society (or industry or profession), individuals must adopt certain shared perspectives (e.g., laws). This social morality is a push—a pressure on individuals to do everything necessary to keep the society operating, to subjugate enough of their individuality to achieve compliance with the society's rules and regulations. The objective of this social morality is stability. Also guiding individuals, however, is a dynamic morality: That is, individuals perceive heroic human beings deserving of imitation and adopt their ethical principles and practices. This dynamic morality operates as a pull—a moral calling, a morality of aspiration. The objective of this dynamic morality is progress.

Bergson's theory of ethics offers a vital insight on the map of the legal-ethical environment: The legal-and-ethical sector and the unethical-and-illegal sector constitute the regulations of social obligation and encourage stability (i.e., clearly right or clearly wrong), while the legal-but-unethical and the ethical-but-illegal sectors give rise to the heroic individuals who question existing moralities, challenge the conscience of a society (or industry or profession), and inspire the ongoing conversations about ethics and the law that keep a society (or industry or profession) dynamic and adaptive. Ethics joined to the law is morality as a push; ethics separated from the law is morality as a pull (see Figure 2).

According to this theory, corporate codes of conduct typically emphasize the push (i.e., guidelines and regulations) as opposed to the pull of morality (i.e., inspiring stories of individuals taking heroic action). (The pull of morality is ordinarily relegated to a list of the virtues to which individuals might aspire—a condition Bergson identifies as insufficient to elicit the emotions of a moral calling.) Corporate codes, given their regulatory emphasis, try to keep the individual inside the ethical-and-legal sector, implying that the individual is without power because all power comes from the regulating corporation. The employee's ethical obligation is thus to adopt the corporate code of conduct.

A code of conduct that includes the stories of heroic individuals, acknowledging both the push and the pull of morality, cultivates a dialogic relationship in which both the organization and the individual possess power (however unequal). The organization still has the power of regulation, but the individual also has the power of his or her courage and integrity, has the power to challenge practices that might be legal but unethical (e.g., the atrocities of “factory farming” operations) or to articulate actions that might be ethical but illegal (e.g., the distribution of medical marijuana), has the power to leave the ethical-and-legal sector (however briefly). Martin Buber (1937/1958) describes the dialogic relationship as I-thou: That is, to be ethical is to treat each other as a “thou” (a human being) instead of as a simple “it” (a thing to be utilized). The I-thou relationship encourages dialogue, while the I-it relationship allows only monologue (the authoritative I and the submissive it). In the I-thou relationship, mutual respect and genuine reciprocity of action are possible.

Figure 2. Legal-ethical relationships in corporate codes of conduct

Reading Codes of Conduct

In this section I offer a reading of corporate codes of conduct from the perspective of Bergson's theory of social and dynamic moralities. According to Ethisphere Institute's (2008) criteria, the highest rated corporate codes of conduct (among government contractors) are the following:

  1. Verizon Wireless
  2. Granite Construction
  3. BP
  4. Datapath
  5. Sprint Nextel
  6. Accenture
  7. Pepsico
  8. Cardinal Health
  9. Rockwell Collins
  10. Fluor Corporation

I will examine the codes of conduct of Verizon Wireless, Granite Construction, and BP—the three highest rated by Ethisphere and from corporations differing in size, history, and industry. Verizon Wireless (www.verizonwireless.com), established in 1999, operates in the communications industry and has about 86,000 employees. Granite Construction (www.graniteconstruction.com), established in 1922, operates in the construction industry and has about 5,000 employees. BP (www.bp.com), established in 1909, operates in the energy industry and has about 92,000 employees.

My comments focus on five factors that I propose could contribute to a dynamic I-thou relationship and encourage creation of dialogic codes of conduct: language emphasizing cooperation versus compliance, identification of authorship, clarity of ethical versus legal obligations, inclusion of humanizing pictorial images, and coverage of heroic individuals.

My reading emulates Farrell and Farrell's (1998) functional linguistic analysis of five corporate codes of conduct, which determined that specific conventions of grammar and diction (e.g., relational clauses, passive voice, nominalizations, imperatives) together “communicate a strong sense of obligation and even powerlessness since a strong authoritarian tone is established which does not give the addressees the possibility of discretionary decision making” (p. 587). Canary and Jennings (2008) reinforce this finding in their linguistic analysis of nouns and noun phrases in 23 corporate codes of conduct: “codes do not influence behavior because they are discursive instantiations of a system that does not encourage reflexivity on the part of the organization members in terms of ethical principles” (p. 276). In my reading of codes of conduct for their emphasis on cooperation or compliance, I will focus on the rhetorical as opposed to the strictly linguistic, and I will consider the impact of entire passages as opposed to individual words and phrases.

Also a key factor in generating a dialogic code of conduct is identification of authorship, both the participants and the process. That is, who contributed to the writing of this code of conduct, what were their sources and influences, how is the code periodically revised, and who contributes to the revision? Without this information, a code of conduct is the anonymous edict of the authoritarian corporation. Without this information, the individual is given no official opportunity to change or challenge the guidelines of the code of conduct. According to Schwartz's (2004) interviews of 57 individuals at four companies, “Employees should be involved in the process [of writing their code of conduct], not necessarily in order to gain their ‘buy-in’ or sense of ownership, but to help ensure a relevant and realistic document is produced” (p. 339). In a linguistic analysis of seven corporate codes of conduct, however, Long and Driscoll (2008) note that little or no attention is given to the subject of authorship.

In addition to emphasizing cooperation instead of compliance and identification of authorship, a dialogic code of conduct would clarify which of its guidelines were legal/illegal issues (and thus subject only to external revision) and which were ethical/unethical (and thus subject to internal revision). That is, if the individual is to recognize his or her location on the map of legal-ethical judgments (and the ability he or she has in time, energy, and resources to navigate this territory), the map itself ought to be readily available and easily deciphered. As Canary and Jennings (2008) note, however, in their analysis of 23 codes of conduct, “many areas covered in codes combine ethical and legal emphases” (p. 269). And according to Carasco and Singh's (2003) analysis of the codes of conduct of 32 transnational corporations, 12 never discuss the legal basis of their guidelines, 10 address it, 2 discuss it in detail, and 8 emphasize it, while 12 never discuss the ethical basis of their guidelines, 10 address it, 4 discuss it in detail, and 4 emphasize it. In a wider but earlier analysis of 75 corporate codes of conduct (Lefevbre & Singh, 1992), 51 never discuss the legal basis of their guidelines, 22 address it, 2 discuss it in detail, and 0 emphasize it, while 22 never discuss the ethical basis of their guidelines, 33 address it, 16 discuss it in detail, and 4 emphasize it. I consider this issue important because ambiguity here could generate timidity.

Following the Ethisphere Institute's practice, I also consider the impact of visual as well as verbal rhetoric in my reading of the codes of conduct. In research on ethics, I realize, this focus is relatively undeveloped. The Ethics Resource Center's (2003) 108-page manual, Creating a Workable Company Code of Ethics, for example, offers no specific advice regarding illustrations but encourages their inclusion as a usability issue: “Allow plenty of white space, reader-friendly fonts, and even pictures and graphics” (p. 29). The implication is that illustrations are supportive of words but never a substitute.

Illustrations are also briefly mentioned in a 2003 study by Pollach of the ethics section of six corporate websites that she considered representative of companies emphasizing business practices (BellSouth and Lockheed Martin), corporate social responsibility (Ben & Jerry's and McDonald's) or both (Nike and Levi-Strauss) in their ethics materials: “Graphic images are the paramount mechanism for appealing to the audience through emotions. Examples of such images include a picture of peacefully grazing cows on McDonald's page on animal welfare, or pictures of happy workers on almost all other Web sites” (p. 284). Illustrations here are identified as evocative of the ethical environment but never informative about principles and practices.

Nevertheless, noteworthy studies by Barton and Barton (1993), Dombrowski (2000), Dragga and Voss (2001, 2003) Henderson (1999), Lancaster (2006), Manning and Amare (2006), and Sauer (1993, 1994, 1996, 2003) acknowledge that illustrations might be designed in ways that communicate greater or lesser humanity, sensitivity, or subjectivity—that no illustration can be said to be entirely objective, that illustrations possess the rhetorical power to contribute to a vigorous sense of ethics and morality.

Studies of visual rhetoric, including visual-verbal relationships (e.g., Barton & Barton, 1987; Brasseur & Thompson, 1995; Dragga, 1992; Fan, 2006; Horn, 1998; Kostelnick & Hassett, 2003; Kress & Van Leeuwen, 1996, 2006; Schriver, 1997;) also make clear that visual communication is potentially every bit as informative and persuasive as it is decorative, and potentially every bit as rhetorical as verbal communication. Gerde and Foster (2008), for example, specifically encourage the adoption of comic books (graphic novels) to teach ethics in high school and college classrooms because the integration of words and pictures humanize the subject, elicits emotional and rational readings, and supports both visual and verbal learning styles.

A final factor in my reading is the inclusion in the code of conduct of stories or anecdotes of heroic individuals who tried to do the right thing, who raised questions about unethical laws, who challenged unethical policies or practices, who put aside profits for the public good, who exemplified moral courage. (For example, in 1987, Dr. P. Roy Vagelos, chair of Merck and Co., decided to give the pharmaceutical company's unique medicine for onchocerciasis, or river blindness, to victims and potential victims worldwide at no cost till the disease itself could be eradicated: The program has saved millions of eyes and is ongoing.) This narrative material has the potential to inspire ethical behavior (Macintyre, 1981). It is also readily memorable, especially relative to lists of rules and regulations. And in many cases on the job, the individual has little or no time to review the corporate code of conduct or visit with a superior or deliberate extensively: He or she might have 30 seconds to make a decision, and a quick guide is to ask “How would [a person in my corporation/industry/profession I admire for his/her integrity and good judgment] manage this situation?” Knowing the stories of the heroes of the corporation, of the industry, of the profession, might allow a quick answer to this vital question (Dragga, 1997).

My analysis as trained critic and interpreter is obviously tentative and subjective: I am necessarily influenced by my previous research regarding ethics (e.g., 1996, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003) as well as by my detailed inspection of scores of codes of conduct. While I am thus unrepresentative of individuals reading codes of conduct, I would also note that my objective here is to claim only the plausibility of my interpretations (verified through public presentation of this research) and thus to identify salient issues for possible later comprehensive studies (including surveys, interviews, ethnographies, and usability testing).

Verizon Wireless

The Verizon Wireless (2008) code of conduct is 40 pages. It includes no pictorial images, limiting itself to words to stipulate and inspire ethical behavior. It makes no mention of heroic individuals. Initially the code of conduct looks promising of a collaborative and dialogic environment. Following the cover, page ii is titled “WE ARE VERIZON WIRELESS” and includes a series of “we” assertions:

We respect and trust one another, communicating openly, candidly and directly since any other way is unfair and a waste of time. We don't need witnesses or paper trails to our conversations. Our word is enough. We voice our opinion and exercise constructive dissent, and then rally around the agreed-upon action with our full support.

This emphasis on collaboration—on the company as “we”—is reinforced in the president's message on page iii: “Our Code of Conduct is a guide to help us conduct all of our business activities with the highest standards of integrity.”

This promising introduction, however, immediately gives way to a focus on compliance. The origins of the code of conduct are never identified: Nothing is mentioned about how it was written or who participated in its writing. Nothing is said about how it might be revised or who might participate in its revision. The only thing said is that it “has been approved by the Audit Committee of the Verizon Board of Representatives” (i.e., officers and executives). The dialogic environment that I earlier imagined as generating this code of conduct here looks less and less likely, and later vanishes altogether as a note on the same page, displayed in bold italic type, declares,

This Code sets forth policies and practices regarding the conduct of all Verizon Wireless employees. You are required to comply with the Code as a condition of your employment. This document does not provide you with any guarantee of continued employment at Verizon Wireless. Unless covered by express written employment agreement, all employees of Verizon Wireless are employed on an “at will” basis. This means you or Verizon Wireless can end the employment relationship at any time with or without cause, and without prior notice, for any reason not prohibited by law. This Code may be unilaterally modified by Verizon Wireless at any time.

In this heavy-handed fashion, Verizon Wireless makes a shift from the company as we to the company versus you. Verizon Wireless is separate from you; it composes and revises the code of conduct without your cooperation. Your only obligation is compliance. This emphasis is sustained through the remainder of the code of conduct. Only on the final page, titled “Verizon Commitment and Values,” is the sense of the company as we revived through a new series of “we” assertions: for example, “We take responsibility for our actions as individuals, as team members, and as an organization. We work together, support one another, and never let the customer—or our coworkers—down.”

Verizon's code of conduct also includes passages that leave unclear which of its directives are legal issues and which are ethical issues. For example, on page 32, a list is introduced as “examples of actions considered illegal or unacceptable” without specifying which are which. A company that was truly serious about encouraging “constructive dissent” would specify which practices were legal/illegal (and thus subject only to external revision) and which were ethical/unethical (and thus subject to internal revision). Mixing the two together gives the impression that compliance with Verizon policies is the same as compliance with national and international laws and thus discourages conversation about the merits of specific guidelines.

Verizon's code of conduct periodically includes a question and answer in the margin. The inquiries focus exclusively on the interpretation of specific policies and never question the propriety or efficacy of the policies. The individual asking the question is characterized as unknowing, and the company has all the answers. This is monologue disguised as dialogue.

To summarize, while the Verizon Wireless code of conduct makes early efforts at creating a collaborative and dialogic environment, it ultimately sacrifices cooperation for compliance and chooses a monologic I-it relationship in which it is permissible to ask questions but inconceivable to question the guidelines or participate in their writing or revision.

Granite Construction

The Granite Construction (2008) code of conduct is 27 pages. It includes two pictorial images. On the cover is a sepia-toned photograph, from the company's early history, of seven workers unloading a dump truck, on which have been laid individual color photographs of three contemporary workers and the caption “We Build Character: Over Eight Decades of Building Character.” On the following page, adjacent to the president's message, is a photograph of the president and his dog. Together the images emphasize the history, humanity, and equality of the people at Granite Construction. This impression is reinforced in the president's message:

Our Code of Conduct, while rich with tradition, is regularly reviewed by a team of Granite employees to ensure that it continues to address current challenges and issues. As in the past, our eight ethical Core Values are found to be timeless, appropriate to any situation. Changes in legislation make periodic revisions necessary for the compliance section of the Code. These modifications, along with some strengthening of our Core Values language has brought our Code up to date, and it should be read and acknowledged by every Granite employee.

Here the historic origins of the code of conduct are implied and the process of revision explained. (Inclusion of a note that detailed this review committee's membership and operations would heighten the opportunities for genuine dialogue.) This sense of collaboration is sustained through the remainder of the president's message and mitigates the language of compliance:

As a condition of your employment, please read, understand and then sign the Certification found at the back of this document and submit it with your I9, W4 and any other required documents on your first day of employment. As you aspire to live the values and policies expressed in this document, you may discuss any questions you have with your supervisor or manager. I am fully committed to working with you to create this legacy for future generations.

Immediately following the president's letter, Granite identifies its heroic individuals, though without pictorial images:

Our founding fathers, Walter Wilkinson and Bert Scott, were hardworking, resourceful entrepreneurs who measured their own character and conduct by how well they applied the simple belief, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. . . . Today, the “Golden Rule” remains the cornerstone of Granite's Core Values as we continually strive to integrate its practice with our goal of rewarding careers, building individual character, and growing a respectable and profitable business.

Honoring and maintaining our predecessors' high standard of conduct will help ensure that all stakeholders will be well served and Granite's highly regarded reputation and integrity will be preserved.

It also explains here that the code of conduct has two sections:

The Code of Conduct consists of two sections: Core Values and Compliance Guidelines. Our Core Values are part of our heritage and are fundamental to who we are as an organization. Core Values are the basis for our decision-making. The Compliance Guidelines address some specific areas of concern, either due to the Company emphasis or legal requirements.

In spite of a decided emphasis on compliance (14 pages of compliance guidelines versus 2 pages of core values), the remainder of the code of conduct ordinarily supports the sense of the company as we (e.g., on page 5, “Each of us has a responsibility to help assure that our Company always does the right thing and complies with the law.”) but does from time to time, as also on page 5, adopt language that divides us from the company:

The Company is subject to federal, state, and local laws and regulations. Management is committed, not only to following the letter of these laws, but also the spirit. Beyond this, however, we are also committed to acting ethically. Following are some of the areas that apply to the Company and its directors, officers, and employees. Our Code does not cover everything you need to know about your conduct as an employee. It is, however, a cornerstone for our commitment and a reference for other policies that provide more specific information.

Granite's code of conduct does a good job of separating the legal from the ethical, typically by mentioning that applicable laws direct specific practices and behaviors (e.g., antitrust laws, securities laws). On page 11, however, the guidelines regarding “intellectual property” make no mention of their legal basis:

  • We respect the rights of others who have created written materials, software, and other “intellectual property.” Only copy documents and other materials when the Company has the right to do so.
  • Company computers may only contain software for which the Company holds an appropriate license.

Given the collaborative spirit that seems to inspire Granite's code of conduct, it is surprising that it closes with a graceless emphasis on compliance. The Code of Conduct Certification on page 23 adopts the language of the company versus you:

  1. I will deal fairly and ethically with Granite and on Granite's behalf in all matters and at all times proactively promote ethical behavior.
  2. I will avoid actual or apparent conflicts with Granite's interests.
  3. I will not a) take for myself personally opportunities that are discovered through the use of Granite property, information or position; b) use Granite property, information or position for personal gain; or c) compete with Granite.
  4. I will protect Granite's assets, and promote their efficient and legitimate business use.

Consider, for example, the impact of a simple word substitution on the sense of cooperation:

  1. I will deal fairly and ethically with our company and on our company's behalf in all matters and at all times proactively promote ethical behavior.
  2. I will avoid actual or apparent conflicts with our company's interests.
  3. I will not a) take for myself personally opportunities that are discovered through the use of our company's property, information or position; b) use our company's property, information or position for personal gain; or c) compete with our company.
  4. I will protect our company's assets, and promote their efficient and legitimate business use.

To summarize, the Granite code of conduct tries to build a collaborative and dialogic environment and the foundations of a genuine I-thou relationship, but sporadically sacrifices the spirit of cooperation to the language of compliance.


The British Petroleum (2007) code of conduct is 84 pages. It makes no mention of heroic individuals. It includes two kinds of pictorial images: a single photograph of the chief executive and scores of drawings, usually of people—and usually in silhouette—meeting, talking, working on computers, operating equipment, and so forth. This inequality in the display of human beings (the personalized boss versus the impersonalized masses) implies a monologic, I-it relationship. Nevertheless, the chief executive's letter on page 1 does make every effort to establish a spirit of collaboration by using “we” assertions (e.g., “If our company is to thrive and grow, we need the trust of our customers, investors, employees, the communities in which we work and, at a wider level, the societies of which we are part.”) as well as by emphasizing equality (e.g., “The BP code of conduct sets out our standards for everybody who works for BP. The code is obligatory, without exception. Everyone in BP is accountable for upholding its requirements.”) and by inviting candid conversation (e.g., “The underlying philosophy of the code is that there should be no gap between what we say and what we do. A crucially important element of this is the commitment to an open culture where people feel secure in seeking advice and in raising concerns.”)

Almost immediately, however, the dialogic gives way again to the monologic. On page 4 the origins of BP's code of conduct and the process of its revision (including who did or might participate) are unexplained: “The code is not entirely new – it updates, revises and summarizes, in one universal framework, BP's standards for employee conduct, helping us to act consistently with group values.” And the serious restrictions on “raising concerns” are made evident on page 7:

You must report any breaches or potential breaches of BP's compliance and ethics commitments of which you become aware—whether these relate to yourself, direct reports or others.

You must similarly seek advice if you are ever unsure about the proper course of action.

That is, “raising concerns” is entirely about reporting violations or getting advised: It is never about questioning the code of conduct itself or contributing to its revision.

The code of conduct does, however, ordinarily make clear which practices are dictated by BP policies and which might be subject to national or international laws. For example, consider this page from page 24 on the subject of privacy and confidentiality:

BP is committed to respecting the confidentiality of our employees' personal information. It is BP policy to acquire and retain only employee personal data that is required for the effective operation of BP, or that is required by law in the places where we operate.

A grievous exception, however, is the following passage a page earlier that makes no mention of the possible applicable laws:

At BP, we believe every employee is entitled to fair treatment, courtesy and respect.

BP will not tolerate any form of abuse or harassment, in any company workplace, toward employees, contractors, suppliers, customers or others.

The inclusion of sample questions and answers at multiple points in the code of conduct simulates dialogue: the questions are all about the meaning of BP's guidelines (never about their merits) and the answers are supplied to the unknowing questioner with the thoroughgoing expectation of his or her compliance.

The spirit of collaboration also yields to a decided shift in language from the company as we to the company versus you. For example, consider this passage from page 5:

The code is the cornerstone of our commitment to integrity. It is a starting point. The code cannot describe every law, regulation or BP requirement that may apply to you. The company has additional standards, instructions and processes to further implement the principles in the code. Make sure you know the rules that do apply to you.

To summarize, in spite of repeated (but inconsistent) efforts at a collaborative and dialogic environment, the BP code of conduct, through both words and pictures, establishes a monologic I-it relationship that emphasizes compliance instead of cooperation.

Implications for Research and Teaching

I acknowledge that the materials of the three companies could easily be unrepresentative, but the evidence here is enough to raise questions about wider industry practice and justify a comprehensive examination. None of the companies truly exploit the immense rhetorical power of narrative or illustrations in their codes of conduct. None exclusively emphasize cooperation or entirely specify authorship. None are altogether lucid or consistent in separating legal and ethical issues. None of the companies appreciate both the push and the pull of morality, both ethics as regulation of cooperative individuals and ethics as inspiration by heroic individuals. Granite Construction does a better job than Verizon or BP, however, and it thus makes obvious the feasibility of a dialogic code of conduct.

While the rhetorical privileging of cooperation, the inclusion of information about authorship, the clarification of ethical versus legal issues, and the addition of heroic narratives might be simple repairs, the primitive usage of illustrations is fairly disquieting, especially in this age of readily available and easily incorporated digital images, in this age of rising expectation that information is almost always communicated both visually and verbally. I imagine, however, that this failure has less to do with a technical inability to incorporate visual images and more to do with a ubiquitous perception that codes of conduct are necessarily all about the words. Given the regulatory emphasis of typical codes of conduct and their equation of legal and ethical behavior, developers of codes of conduct likely perceive themselves as writers of regulations instead of communicators of ethics and come to the project thinking everything in the code of conduct must be verbalized According to this thinking, illustrations might be incorporated to fortify words, but themselves do little to stipulate, clarify, or encourage ethical behavior or generate the dialogic ethical environment that inspires ethical behavior. Consider, however, the rhetorical power of photographs of supervisors and subordinates in conversation with each other (instead of smiling at the camera); or of employees reading and discussing the corporate code of conduct; or of the code of conduct being written or revised; or flow charts with pertinent pictorial images that explain the process for writing and revising the code of conduct and the process for questioning or challenging specifications in the code of conduct; or line graphs that identify the frequency of specific kinds of ethical dilemmas reported in the previous five years (i.e., the likeliest dangers to the company's reputation and integrity) linked to a representative sampling of photographs and quotations of the courageous employees who reported the dilemmas. Each would contribute to a sense of ethics as a joint mission and the code of conduct as a collaborative and ongoing project.

Obviously, a lot of questions about corporate codes of conduct are still unanswered, but multiple directions for research are quite promising:

How might usability research contribute to identifying the rhetorical (and linguistic) traits in codes of conduct that inspire cooperation instead of compliance? Which are the key rhetorical (and linguistic) traits of cooperation? Which are the key rhetorical (and linguistic) traits of compliance?

Would surveying (or interviewing, or observing) a representative sampling of developers of codes of conduct offer insight on why illustrations are given little substantive import, why authorship information and heroic narratives are omitted, or why ethical and legal issues are mixed together? Who are the developers of codes of conduct? Writers? Artists? Business managers? Legal advisors? What is the nature of their education? What is the nature of their rhetorical and ethical training? What are the key issues for each in developing codes of conduct? How collaborative or dialogic is this creative process?

What are the possible ways that narratives or illustrations could be utilized in codes of conduct? To address do's and don'ts (e.g., do be friendly, don't be flirtatious)? To depict specific virtuous actions that the company has taken or is taking (e.g., recycling its papers and plastics at all locations)? To depict specific ethical issues that the company has addressed or is addressing (e.g., creating a safe and healthy work environment)? To depict specific ethical individuals? To separate ethical from legal issues?

Would publishing codes of conduct in a picture-intensive but unconventional medium (e.g., comic books, playing cards, wall calendars) offer “unexpected solutions to such problems as delivering information to remote populations or communicating with inattentive or resistant audiences” (Malone, 2008, p. 59)?

  • How might pictorial images in codes of conduct be translated/localized to accompany translations/localizations of language?
  • Would surveying (or interviewing, or observing) a representative sampling of employees reveal that codes of conduct that separate ethical and legal issues or include narratives, illustrations, or authorship information are more likely to be read? Easier to read? Easier to remember? More inspiring? More persuasive? More instructive?
  • Which theories of rhetoric, semiotics, and ethics would be especially perceptive and productive in the analysis of codes of conduct?

And as much as there is to do in research, there is also a good bit of better teaching to do. Teachers of technical communication are still failing, for example, to inspire in their students the kind of comprehensive visual thinking that all of us acknowledge is important (Brumberger, 2007a, 2007b). This failure has ethical consequences, with obvious impact on the way codes of conduct are conceived and developed. It is a key ethical issue for the field as well as a pedagogical imperative.

We could, however, teach (and lead) by example. We could take the guidelines of STC and develop revised versions that include the rhetorical power of narrative and visual communication and that identify the contributors to this revision. We could engage graduate and undergraduate students in this initiative as class projects; we could engage each other in this initiative as a national competition. We could advance the cause of ethics if we make STC's code of conduct itself a leading example of effective dialogic communication.

Consider, for example, the six ideals of STC's ethical guidelines: legality, honesty, confidentiality, quality, fairness, and professionalism. Each of the six is explained and detailed in a paragraph, but how might pictorial images or narrative material contribute to their meaning? Give each clarity and specificity? Make each important and necessary? As Bergson (1954) has explained, only heroic human beings inspire in us the genuine feeling of a moral calling. Notice, however, that each of STC's ideals in its strictly verbal display is disembodied, separated from the human beings who give life and material to morality. A series of photographs of heroic practitioners of each ideal (with a brief caption telling their stories) would intensify the rhetorical power of STC's guidelines by making vivid the feasibility of ethical behavior. The photographs and narratives could be readily localized to each chapter of this international organization, thus making the guidelines especially pertinent and immediate.

If we consider ethics a vital subject of teaching and research, we ought to investigate how to intensify the rhetorical impact of the ethical guidelines we espouse. And we might take responsibility for developing corporate codes of conduct that emphasize cooperation instead of compliance, that separate ethical and legal issues, and that integrate narrative, illustrations, and authorship information. Studied in the principles and practices of ethical communication as well as collaborative verbal and visual communication, technical communicators could be uniquely qualified to develop dialogic codes of conduct for their corporations, industries, and associations—codes of conduct that would comprise the push and pull of morality, that would both stipulate ethical behavior and inspire it.


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About the Author

Sam Dragga is professor of technical communication and chair of the Department of English at Texas Tech University. He is a Fellow and past president of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing and a recipient of STC's Jay R. Gould Award for Excellence in Teaching Technical Communication. He is coauthor of Essentials of Technical Communication (Oxford University Press, 2010) and is series editor of the Allyn & Bacon Series in Technical Communication. He has also published journal articles on professional ethics and technical communication. He is available at sam.dragga@ttu.edu.

Manuscript received 7 October 2008; revised 2 October 2010; accepted 3 December 2010.