An increased focus on ethics, corporate governance and responsibility has encouraged many organisations to establish a code of conduct. A code of conduct is the most common policy within an organisation. This policy lays out the organisation’s ethical values, principles, standards, and the rules that employees or members are held to. Codes of conduct provide the agreed and shared guidelines of a group of individuals or organisations in order to promote good practices in different activities, including communication and interaction with stakeholders.

Codes of conduct are following laws and regulations, but generally go beyond legal stipulations. In fact, in some countries, such codes are required, e.g., Australia[1], EU GDPR Art.40[2]. Supra-national organisations like the WHO[3], non-profit non-Government organisations (NGO)[4], industry associations, companies, professional associations[5], also lawmakers, such as the European Commission (EC)[6], or, in case of pharmaceuticals regulatory authorities, such as the European Medicines Agency (EMA)[7], or Patient Organisations (PO), like the European Patients’ Forum (EPF)[8] develop codes of conduct to self-regulate their activities. Generally, the applicability is extended to third parties, e.g., to anyone collaborating with or acting on behalf of the organisation, notwithstanding their contractual status; and in some cases, additional specific codes of conduct are developed, e.g., for suppliers[9].

While codes of conduct span a wide range of fields, from legislators to practically any kind of business or organisation, as exemplified above, this lesson focuses on codes of conduct pertaining to the pharmaceutical industry in Europe.

Critics tend to regard codes, especially for pharmaceutical companies, as self-serving statements that protect the organisation and its members more than they protect the public interest. However, even though codes have been used in self-serving ways, they have also provided standards that render an organisation and/or its members more accountable and trustworthy. It is important not to lose sight of the impartial ethical validity of the norms that codes can contain. For the pharmaceutical industry this means that a code should be premised on the belief that they are not merely pursuing economic interests but are charged and entrusted—more stringently than other industries—with service to society in helping to improve individual and global health. As such, pharmaceutical companies must be dedicated and accountable to the people they serve. A code is not the only lens that society uses to evaluate their performance, but it is a visible statement of their collective conscience, and it is one benchmark against which specific professional practices can be measured.

Implementing codes of conduct effectively and consistently can improve organisational efficiency and self-regulation, leading to fewer irregularities and a gradual build-up of trust between organisations and their stakeholders, in case of the pharmaceutical industry foremost to win and retain patient trust. In contrast, organisations that fail to establish and implement a code of conduct and to embed their values may experience lower performance, higher personnel turnover, increased costs, and increased exposure to complaints, sanctions and even legal action.

[1] Australian competition & consumer commission

[2] EU GDPR: Art. 40 Codes of conduct

[4] Code of Ethics & Conduct for NGOs

[5] PUBLIC HEALTH CODE OF ETHICS 2019 American Public Health Association

[6] Code of Conduct for the Members of the European Commission