An increasing number of companies requires employees to attend trainings regarding business conduct. These typically include discussions of the company’s policies, specific case studies, and legal requirements. Some companies even require their employees to sign agreements stating that they will abide by the company’s rules of conduct.
As part of more comprehensive compliance and ethics programs, many companies have formulated internal policies pertaining to the ethical conduct of employees. They are generally documented in one of two ways:
Corporate Code of Ethics
A code of ethics begins by setting out the values that underpin the code and describes a company’s obligation to its stakeholders. The code is publicly available and addressed to anyone with an interest in the company’s activities and the way it does business. It includes details of how the company plans to implement its values and vision, as well as guidance to staff on ethical standards and how to achieve them. It is hoped that having such a policy will lead to greater ethical awareness, consistency in application, and the avoidance of ethical disasters.
Code of Practice
A code of practice is adopted by a profession or by a governmental or nongovernmental organization to regulate that profession. A code of practice may be styled as a code of professional responsibility, and it will discuss difficult issues, difficult decisions that will often need to be made, and provide a clear account of what behavior is considered “ethical” or “correct” or “right” in the circumstances. In a membership context, failure to comply with a code of practice can result in expulsion from the professional organization.
Richard DeGeorge, author of Business Ethics, has this to say about the importance of maintaining a corporate code:
Corporate codes have a certain usefulness and there are several advantages to developing them. First, the very exercise of doing so in itself is worthwhile, especially if it forces a large number of people in the firm to think through, in a fresh way, their mission and the important obligations they as a group and as individuals have to the firm, to each other, to their clients and customers, and to society as a whole. Second, once adopted, a code can be used to generate continuing discussion and possible modification to the code. Third, it could help to inculcate in new employees at all levels the perspective of responsibility, the need to think in moral terms about their actions, and the importance of developing the virtues appropriate to their position.1DeGeorge, Richard. Business Ethics. Prentice Hall. pp. 207–208
Beyond establishing policies or codes that guide the ethical behavior of the company or employees, many companies are assessing the environmental factors that can lead employees to engage in unethical conduct. A competitive business environment may call for unethical behavior. For example, lying has become the norm in fields such as stock and security trading. Sometimes there is disconnection between the company’s code of ethics and the company’s actual practices. Thus, whether or not such conduct is explicitly sanctioned by management, at worst, this makes the policy duplicitous, and, at best, it is merely a marketing tool.
Not everyone supports corporate policies that govern ethical conduct. Some claim that ethical problems are better dealt with by relying upon employees to use their own judgment. Others believe that corporate ethics policies are primarily rooted in utilitarian concerns, and that they are mainly to limit the company’s legal liability, or to curry public favor by giving the appearance of being a good corporate citizen. Ideally, the company will avoid a lawsuit because its employees will follow the rules. Should a lawsuit occur, the company can claim that the problem wouldn’t have arisen if the employee had followed the code properly.