One thing for which King Arthur is remembered are his chivalric knights. He helped create this legend, in large part, by establishing a Code of Conduct for the Knights of the Round Table. The King required each one of them to swear an oath, called the Pentecostal Oath, which was Arthur’s ideal for a chivalric knight. The Oath stated, “The king established all his knights, and gave them that were of lands not rich, he gave them lands, and charged them never to do outrageousity nor murder, and always to flee treason; also, by no mean to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen succor upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, ne for no world’s goods. Unto this were all the knights sworn of the Table Round, both old and young. And every year were they sworn at the high feast of Pentecost.” (Le Morte d’Arthur, pp 115-116)
Interestingly, the Oath first appeared in Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and in none of the prior incarnations of the legend. In Malory’s telling, after the Knights swore the Oath, they were provided titles and lands by the King. The Oath specifies both positive and negative conduct; that is, what a Knight might do but also what conduct he should not engage in. The Pentecostal Oath formed the basis for the Knight’s conduct at Camelot and beyond. It was clearly a forerunner of today’s corporate Code of Conduct.
The foundational document of any Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) compliance program is its Code of Conduct. This requirement has long been memorialized in the US Sentencing Guidelines, which contain seven basic compliance elements that can be tailored to fit the needs and financial realities of any given organization. From these seven compliance elements the Department of Justice (DOJ) has crafted its minimum best practices compliance program, which is now attached to every Deferred Prosecution Agreement (DPA) and Non-Prosecution Agreement (NPA). These requirements were incorporated into the 2012 FCPA Guidance. The US Sentencing Guidelines assume that every effective compliance and ethics program begins with a written standard of conduct; i.e. a Code of Conduct. What should be in this “written standard of conduct”.
Standards of Conduct, Policies and Procedures (a Code of Conduct)
An organization should have an established set of compliance standards and procedures. These standards should not be a “paper only” document, but a living document that promotes organizational culture that encourages “ethical conduct” and a commitment to compliance with applicable regulations and laws.
In the FCPA Guidance, the DOJ and Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) state, “A company’s code of conduct is often the foundation upon which an effective compliance program is built. As DOJ has repeatedly noted in its charging documents, the most effective codes are clear, concise, and accessible to all employees and to those conducting business on the company’s behalf.” Indeed, it would be difficult to effectively implement a compliance program if it was not available in the local language so that employees in foreign subsidiaries can access and understand it. When assessing a compliance program the DOJ and SEC will review whether the company chapter has taken steps to make certain that the code of conduct remains current and effective and whether a company has periodically reviewed and updated its code.
In each DPA and NPA over the past 36 months the DOJ has stated the following as item No. 1 for a minimum best practices compliance program.
- Code of Conduct. A Company should develop and promulgate a clearly articulated and visible corporate policy against violations of the FCPA, including its anti-bribery, books and records, and internal controls provisions, and other applicable foreign law counterparts (collectively, the “anti-corruption laws”), which policy shall be memorialized in a written compliance code.
In an article in the Society for Corporate Compliance and Ethics (SCCE) Complete Compliance and Ethics Manual, 2nd Ed., entitled “Essential Elements of an Effective Ethics and Compliance Program”, authors Debbie Troklus, Greg Warner and Emma Wollschlager Schwartz, state that your company’s Code of Conduct “should demonstrate a complete ethical attitude and your organization’s “system-wide” emphasis on compliance and ethics with all applicable laws and regulations.” Your Code of Conduct must be aimed at all employees and all representatives of the organization, not just those most actively involved in known compliance and ethics issues. From the board of directors to volunteers, the authors believe that “everyone must receive, read, understand, and agree to abide by the standards of the Code of Conduct.” This would also include all “management, vendors, suppliers, and independent contractors, which are frequently overlooked groups.”
There are several purposes identified by the authors that should be communicated in your Code of Conduct. Of course the overriding goal is for all employees to follow what is required of them under the Code of Conduct. You can do this by communicating what is required of them, to provide a process for proper decision-making and then to require that all persons subject to the Code of Conduct put these standards into everyday business practice. Such actions are some of your best evidence that your company “upholds and supports proper compliance conduct.”
The substance of your Code of Conduct should be tailored to the company’s culture, and to its industry and corporate identity. It should provide a mechanism by which employees who are trying to do the right thing in the compliance and business ethics arena can do so. The Code of Conduct can be used as a basis for employee review and evaluation. It should certainly be invoked if there is a violation. To that end, I suggest that your company’s disciplinary procedures be stated in the Code of Conduct. These would include all forms of disciplines, up to and including dismissal, for serious violations of the Code of Conduct. Further, your company’s Code of Conduct should emphasize it will comply with all applicable laws and regulations, wherever it does business. The Code needs to be written in plain English and translated into other languages as necessary so that all applicable persons can understand it.
As I often say, the three most important things about your FCPA compliance program are ‘Document, Document and Document’. The same is true of communicating your company’s Code of Conduct. You need to do more than simply put it on your website and tell folks it is there, available and that they should read it. You need to document that all employees, or anyone else that your Code of Conduct is applicable to, has received, read, and understands the Code. For employees, it is important that a representative of the Compliance Department, or other qualified trainer, explains the standards set forth in your Code of Conduct and answers any questions that an employee may have. Your company’s employees need to attest in writing that they have received, read, and understood the Code of Conduct and this attestation must be retained and updated as appropriate.
The DOJ expects each company to begin its compliance program with a very public and very robust Code of Conduct. If your company does not have one, you need to implement one forthwith. If your company has not reviewed or assessed their Code of Conduct for five years, I would suggest that you do in short order as much has changed in the compliance world.
What is the value of having a Code of Conduct? I have heard many business folks ask that question over the years. In its early days, a Code of Conduct tended to be lawyer-written and lawyer-driven to “wave in a defense situation” by claiming that “see we have one”. But is such a legalistic code effective? Is a Code of Conduct more than simply, your company’s law? What is it that makes a Code of Conduct effective? What should be the goal in the creation of your company’s Code of Conduct?
Just as the Pentecostal Oath was required to be sworn out each year, you should have your employees recertify their adherence to your Code of Conduct. Moreover, just as King Arthur set his expectations for behavior your company should do so as well.
This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Thomas R. Fox, 2015