Translating is not enough: explaining corporate Codes of Conduct to employees

It’s not just marketing campaigns and brand names that need careful translation. Corporate Codes of Conduct and ethical principles have a universal vocation, so making sure they are correctly understood in each international market is essential. A quick read of any CEO’s foreword leaves no doubt as to the fact that every single employee must abide strictly by the organisation’s principles.

Most Codes are also based on – or refer to – widely accepted international norms, such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, or the Universal Copyright Convention of 1952.

But in order to ensure that a Code applies to all employees across the world, careful explanation is needed. However clearly stated, rules and guidelines don’t mean the same thing to everyone, or in every country.

While assessing a company’s middle-eastern operations last year, GoodCorporation came across a startling example. Our client had a clear policy of tendering out most contracts, selecting suppliers and contractors on the merit of their technical, safety and financial records. Yet, a conversation with local procurement officers went something like this:

Employee: “We were given the Code of Conduct, translated into Arabic. The booklet is lovely, but I don’t understand what it means.”

GC assessor: “What is it you think the Code is not clear about?”

Employee: “Well, surely I shouldn’t refrain from buying equipment from my cousin, a local supplier? We’re supposed to look out for family, here.”

No manager had ever taken time to explain why being one’s cousin wasn’t the quality most valued in a supplier. And given the strength of local kinship ties, the clarification was necessary.

For Companies’ Codes of Conduct to be respected, they must be explained. Employees need to understand how principles apply to their particular position or tasks, and managers must show that they own and value these guidelines.

Cultural differences are not the only obstacle to factor in. GoodCorporation assessors frequently hear head office employees brush away basic questions about their company’s Code of Ethics, most often because “it’s simply common sense”.

But ask them how respecting competition law affects their job, or what they think would constitute a discriminatory recruitment practice, and they will regularly look blank. Without concrete examples and scenarios, the Code will not produce the results it sets out to achieve.