Ombuds’ corner: Code of Conduct and change of behaviour

In this series, the Bulletin aims to explain the role of the Ombuds at CERN by presenting practical examples of misunderstandings that could have been resolved by the Ombuds if he had been contacted earlier. Please note that, in all the situations we present, the names are fictitious and used only to improve clarity.


Is our Code of Conduct actually effective in influencing behaviour? Research studies suggest that codes, while necessary, are insufficient as a means of encouraging respectful behaviour among employees. Codes are only a potential means of influencing employee behaviour.

For a Code of Conduct to be effective, several elements must be in place. Firstly, there needs to be communication and effective training using relevant examples to make the code real. It should be embraced by the leaders and accepted by the personnel. Finally, it should be embedded in the CERN culture and not seen as a separate entity, which requires serious discussions to raise awareness. In addition, every code must be assessed on its real success (or failure) in changing behaviour to create a more respectful workplace environment.

Another factor which determines the effectiveness of a code of conduct is the degree to which code violations can be appropriately sanctioned, and to which extent people conforming to the code are rewarded. Not to forget the most important element: the active and visible support from the management.

Everyone is responsible for fostering a culture of respect and leaders should be held to account for their teams, in the same way that they are held to account for them in terms of technical efficiency, scientific excellence and deliverables. The Code of Conduct should be considered as a key strategic document by everyone in our Organization, otherwise it will simply remain window dressing.

Greg* leads a CERN unit involved in the operation of the accelerators and the experiments. His technical knowledge is recognised by everyone, so his management is considering giving him a big promotion, that Greg by the way expects. However, Greg is known by his colleagues and subordinates to spread rumours and make remarks about people, which lowers the morale of his team and spoil the overall atmosphere. Several people suffer from his lack of courtesy and low level of tolerance. Essentially Greg believes that he is the best and that the others are not up to his level. Of course his collaborators resent that strongly and think that some action should be taken by his hierarchy to stop such behaviour. It seems that Greg’s possible promotion would be felt by everyone on the team as an offense, as if he were the only one who works hard. They have often enough heard Greg using that kind of language.

The management on the other hand is preoccupied that if Greg does not get his promotion, he will take it as a slap in the face and this could endanger operations. The dilemma is obvious. Should someone who is important for his technical expertise but who violates the Code of Conduct be given a promotion? That is where the question of the culture of the Organization comes into play.

If the culture values scientific results above all else, then Greg will most likely get the promotion and the hierarchy will think that the rest can be worked out somehow through training, coaching or mentoring. His collaborators will then be most offended, spreading the word that the Organization does not care about its own Code of Conduct. Much trouble can be expected in the unit, maybe even endangering operations.

If the culture values ethics more, Greg will probably not be given his promotion this year. He may not understand the reason why and could spread his strong opinion that CERN, as a scientific laboratory with a global reputation, does not recognise technical excellence.

The best route to take is the one where both scientific and ethical cultures are taken into account. So the Code of Conduct should be an essential part of the CERN culture. In the case study presented, other means are available, such as transparent communication, open and truthful explanations, feedback methods, so that a satisfactory solution can be found for all those involved. Finding such a solution cannot be more complicated than building the LHC, so it is possible to reach it with a positive attitude and willingness to act!


It is not obvious that by itself the Code of Conduct can change people’s behaviour to create a respectful workplace environment. A great deal of follow-up in the various groups and units is required for that. This is a challenge that we all have to face. Given the fact that challenges are part of our every work day, if we take this one on, we will undoubtedly succeed.

* Names and stories are purely imaginary.

Contact the Ombuds Early!


by Vincent Vuillemin