A code of ethics is a set of principles and rules used by companies, professional organizations and individuals to govern their decision making in choosing between right and wrong. Depending on the context of a given code of ethics, penalties and/or sanctions may result from a violation.
Codes of ethics are generally used in the business and professional context to assure the public that corporations and members of regulated professions are acting in a socially and professionally acceptable manner. Organizations with an established and published code of ethics have in place review processes and appeals procedures to guard against malicious or self-serving use of the code for individual benefit.
An excellent example of a code of ethics relating to a profession is the American Bar Association Model Rules of Professional Conduct:
The first rule in the American Bar Association's Code of ethics addresses attorney competence. Called Rule 1.1, this rule reads:
A lawyer shall provide competent representation to a client. Competent representation requires the legal knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for the representation.
This code of ethics provides guidance for lawyers on matters ranging from client confidentiality to partnerships to treatment of witnesses inside and outside the courtroom. Proven violations of the Rules of Professional Conduct can result in penalties ranging from verbal and written censure up to loss of the ability to practice law.
In this case, adherence to a written code of ethics is assumed to be a part of participating in the legal profession and is a responsibility on the part of each individual attorney. Professional codes of ethics rely on sanctions and penalties to ensure that they are followed and that those involved in the profession in question, as well as those served by the profession, will report violation to maintain the integrity and quality of service provided.
Paralegals, like lawyers, are held to a code of ethics. Unlike lawyers, these codes of ethics are imposed as a result of voluntary membership in professional organizations and not by a licensing board such as the ABA. Still, the ethical rules set forth within the codes are very important.
Consider the first three Canon's of the Code of Ethics published by the National Association of Legal Assistances:
The American Medical Association also imposes a Code of Ethics on physicians. This code of ethics addresses everything from interpersonal relationships with other staff members such as nurses, to information on patient care.
Different opinions within the AMA's code address different issues. For instance, opinion 8.021:
Ethical obligations of medical directors, specifies that:(1) Placing the interests of patients above other considerations, such as personal interests (eg, financial incentives) or employer business interests (eg, profit). This entails applying the plan parameters to each patient equally and engaging in neither discrimination nor favoritism, is part of adherence to professional medical standards.
Corporations and non-profits have codes of ethics to assist workers in determining if certain behaviors are appropriate and acceptable in their dealings with clients and outside agencies.
Examples of governed behaviors include:
Many organizations require employees to attend yearly training on ethics and responsibilities and in some cases, to sign statements promising to adhere to all company ethics guidelines.
Ethics guidelines have become a greater topic of public interest following recent events in the home mortgage and financial sectors that called into question whether ethics policies were actually being followed or merely given lip service while pursuing the greatest profit for the company.
Different types of organizations also have to address different issues depending on their purpose. For instance, the Not-for-Profit Planned Parenthood has a code of ethics for peer educators. One excerpt from this code of ethics reads:
As a Peer Educator, I agree to follow the rules and policies which govern the program. I understand the following and accept them as my personal "code of ethics" as long as I continue to be involved as a Peer Educator: • I will respect the integrity and individuality of the person I am helping and of my fellow Peers Educators• I will respect the rules of confidentiality with regard to helping people and education.
Susan G. Komen, a Breast Cancer foundation, also provides a code of ethics for affiliates of the organization. According to their Code of Ethics:
Every board member, officer, employee, staff member, grant reviewer, Race director, committee chair, and committee member (individually and collectively “Individual”) of an affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation (the “Affiliate”) shall avoid any conflict between his/her personal, professional or business interests and the interests of the Affiliate in all actions taken by or on behalf of the Affiliate.
Individual codes of ethics are most commonly seen as part of the tenets of a religion but can also be considered to be those unwritten rules of behavior instilled in an individual by their upbringing and environment.
Society at large assumes that certain ethical behaviors are defined regardless of religion, geographic location or nationality.
Examples of societal ethical behavior can include such things as:
Certain codes of ethics can apply only to members of select groups and are not necessarily in step with society as a whole. Examples of this phenomenon include the criminal organization of Japan known as the Yakuza.
Theft from and violence against non-Yakuza are considered perfectly acceptable, but there are definite rules for acceptable and regulated behavior between Yakuza members, the breaking of which can be followed by harsh punishments. Individual and societal codes of ethics can therefore be seen as more elastic than those of corporations and professional organizations.
One of the most famous codes of ethics that apply to individuals is the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments find their roots in religion and not all of them will resonate with all people. Most people, however, can appreciate the ethical reasoning behind at least some of the Ten commandments even if they do not believe the religious teachings surrounding them.
Codes of ethics are present at all levels of society, business and individual behavior. Many are codified in writing and enforced with penalties while others are more malleable and dependent on the individual’s perception of right and wrong.
Regardless of their source or means of enforcement, codes of ethics permeate modern life and are factors to be considered in almost every facet of daily life, from proper work behavior to double parking to grabbing the daily latte.