Abstract This article adds to research on the regulation of standards of conduct in public administration. Specifically, it analyses attempts made during Siim Kallas' mandate (2004-2009), to change the European Commission's approach to managing ethics, from a focus on control (inherited from the Kinnock reforms) to a 'modern' style based on guidance and shared values. Findings suggest that administrative practice fell short of delivering the change suggested by official discourse. The case of the Commission illustrates the practical challenges of operating shifts in organizational ethics management, and draws attention to the influence of the historical and political context of the reforms. The article uses a qualitative methodology, combining document analysis and in-depth interviews with ethics experts in the European Commission.