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Rotary International’s Code of Conduct for Rotarians: Personal Action to Improve Our World


Author: Michael R. Flam, President, of Michael Robert Flam P.A. 
This publication may only be used, distributed or copied with my prior written permission 
Copyright 2022. All rights are reserved by Michael Robert Flam P.A.

As a Rotarian and small business owner, I find Rotary International’s Code of Conduct for Rotarians (Code) to be a wonderful “living and breathing” document on how to conduct my occupation, operate my business, and live my life. Rotary International (Rotary) created the Code (circa 2011), a compilation of ethical principles for the members of its global organization (Rotarians), but its guiding principles could apply to everyone.

The Code replaced the 1989 Rotary ethics document called the “Declaration of Rotarians in Businesses and Professions” (Declaration). Rotarians are fully aware of the Object of Rotary (1911) and many have memorized The Four-Way Test (1932). (The Object of Rotary pioneered the “ideal of service” as Rotary’s foundation stone. The Four-Way Test helps a Rotarian decide on how to think and act appropriately.)  When I asked other Rotarians if they were aware of the Code, many did not know it existed. I decided to explore the genesis of Rotary’s guiding principles in the Code, which is the basis for this article. (These documents are on Rotary’s website, 

Corporate collapses, takeovers, greed, and scandals were a regular occurrence during the 1980s and coupled with accounting fraud to conceal corporate impropriety, caused a major financial crisis. Public outrage led to tighter federal regulations and stiffer penalties in the United States to prevent such blatant misconduct. The Declaration was Rotary’s response to help its young Rotarians, who were joining Rotary after graduating from programs of higher learning in their pursuit of fortune and fame, to act properly in the workplace. The preamble of the Declaration states that every Rotarian in a business or profession is “expected” to abide by 8 principles, which I have summarized below. (Rotary’s word choice of “expected” conveyed its hope that Rotarians would voluntarily comply.)   

Summary of Declaration Principles:
1. Your vocation is another “opportunity to serve”
2. Follow the ethical codes of your profession, the laws of your country, and the moral standards of your community
3. “Dignify” your vocation 
4. Be fair to everyone whom you have a business or professional relationship
5. Honor and respect all occupations “useful to society”
6. Provide your “vocational talents” to help the special needs of others and to improve the quality of life in your community
7. Honestly advertise your business or profession 
8. Refrain from securing or providing preferential treatment when dealing with another Rotarian 

The Declaration took key principles from the Object of Rotary, namely: 
1. Opportunity for service (first Object and first Declaration principle)
2. High ethical standards (second Object and second Declaration principle) 
3. “Dignifying” of each Rotarian’s occupation (second Object and third Declaration principle) 
4. Recognition of the “worthiness” of all useful occupations to society (second Object and fifth Declaration principle) 
5. “World fellowship” (fourth Object and sixth Declaration principle)

The Declaration also took key principles from The Four-Way Test, namely:
1. Importance of telling the “truth” (one way and seventh Declaration principle)
2. Duty of “fairness” (two way and fourth Declaration principle)
3. Value of “goodwill” (three way and fifth Declaration principle)
4. “Benefit all concerned” (four way and eighth Declaration principle) 

I think the drafters of the Declaration completely understood the importance of merging the fundamental principles of the Object of Rotary and The Four-Way Test into a new testament on ethics that Rotarians would follow into the next millennium. Rotary’s global vision for a more virtuous membership may have been the driving force for the Code because Rotary took no chances this time by making Code compliance compulsory.  All Rotarians are personally accountable under the Code in all aspects of their lives, to help Rotary shape a better world. 

Rotary retained important aspects of the Declaration by including in the Code the responsibility of all Rotarians to follow high ethical standards, to act with fairness, and to help others with special needs. Rotary then expanded its ethics mission by covering the following subjects in the Code:

1. Extended a key guiding principle- the duty to act with integrity- to a Rotarian’s personal life
2. Extended a Rotarian’s moral responsibility to improve the quality of life worldwide (this would promote social awareness, foster collaboration among Rotarians, and increase funding of service projects)
3. Recognized the harm that a Rotarian’s improper conduct could cause to the reputation and goodwill of its global organization and to other Rotarians 
4. Added (circa 2019) an anti-harassment and anti-retaliation provision to send a clear message conveying Rotary’s zero tolerance toward hostile work environments

A code of conduct is an extremely useful device for personal and professional improvement. We can thank Rotary for leading the way in ethical doctrine for more than a century. What an incredible world it could be if our communities were enriched with more individuals who acted with compassion, honesty, integrity, and civility. 

Michael R. Flam

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