Crafting an Effective Association Code of Conduct: 3 Essential Steps

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DeLaine Bender CAE

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As the executive team liaison to many AMR Management Services clients, I spend a great deal of time participating in meetings of our clients’ Boards of Directors. One of my roles is to provide strategic guidance when association leaders are faced with sensitive issues—including Code of Conduct violations.

A Code of Conduct is an association policy intended to define standards and expectations for behavior within the association and describe the enforcement processes applied to those who don’t comply. If this feels negative to you, flip the script. A Code of Conduct sets the tone for respectful, positive interaction among the whole community (members, leaders, conference attendees, staff, etc.) and creates the safe, welcoming environment we expect.

If a individual acts inappropriately, a Code of Conduct also provides a framework for addressing the issue fairly. Following the process in the code helps ensure all parties are held to the same standards, demonstrates the association’s commitment to upholding its core values, and ensures compliance with lawful and ethical practices.

From my seat as a career association management professional, an effective Code of Conduct (or a Code of Professional Ethics if you prefer) is an important addition to your policy manual. But like a good strategic plan, the code and related processes must be carefully crafted, well written, properly vetted, and given a prominent level of visibility.

How can you ensure your Code of Conduct is effective?

1 Make it clear and easily understood

At a high level, a good Coded of Conduct is comprehensive, flows logically, and is written in plain language to promote comprehension. It should also describe processes for reporting and addressing violations, enforcement measures, and appeals. If you don’t already have a code, the American Society of Association Executives offers guidance and templates for ASAE members. I also highly recommend engaging an attorney who is well-versed in the legal needs of associations to be sure your code is solid, especially if the scope includes professional ethics or standards beyond association-specific conduct.

2 Make it highly visible and accessible

For a Code of Conduct to be effective, members and event participants must be aware of it. You can, for example, make your code a required review in the membership application and easily accessible on the association’s website. Event conduct guidelines can be included in the registration process and can also visible onsite (in materials and signage, for example) at events. Clearly, our association meetings, conferences, and other educational events are more enjoyable and productive when attendees feel safe and respected. Being transparent about the Code of Conduct also helps build accountability and trust, as members see your leadership is committed to upholding the association’s principles.

3 Enforce the policy and follow the process

Every member of the Board of Directors (and anyone in a leadership position) should understand the Code of Conduct and their responsibilities. A good start is to include it in your board, committee, and staff orientation sessions. An annual reminder/review by the board is another good practice. After all, an association policy has no value if it is not known and properly enforced. Deviating from the policy or process may erode confidence in the board’s leadership, lead to accusations of favoritism, and even put the association in legal jeopardy. On the other hand, consistency fosters a culture of trust, integrity, and respect.

Conclusion

In short, to be effective, your association’s Code of Conduct must be comprehensive, enforceable, easily understood, and well known. It should set clear expectations and provide a framework for addressing and resolving any issues that may arise. Vetting by an attorney will help protect the association and the board.

If your association doesn’t have a well-crafted Code of Conduct—or if it has been more than a hot minute since your Board of Directors reviewed it—do not wait!

As an accredited association management company, AMR Management Services can help you establish a solid portfolio of association policies. If your association could benefit from professional management support, please contact AMR for more information.

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DeLaine Bender CAE
Vice President of Client Services

Degrees and Credentials:
Certified Association Executive (CAE), Bachelor of Arts in Journalism & Mass Communication, University of Oklahoma

Association Management Professional Since:
1995

What inspires you about your work?
In my career, I have been blessed to work with some amazing, inspiring association leaders, who have become mentors and friends. I also enjoy the challenging, ever-changing environment of associations, and the sense of fulfillment in having made a difference in a profession or on an issue.

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