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.
Code of Ethics: Types and Ideas
Codes for Professions
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:
- Canon 1: A paralegal must not perform any of the duties that attorneys only may perform nor take any actions that attorneys may not take.
- Canon 2: A paralegal may perform any task which is properly delegated and supervised by an attorney, as long as the attorney is ultimately responsible to the client, maintains a direct relationship with the client, and assumes professional responsibility for the work product.
- Canon 3: A paralegal must not: (a) engage in, encourage, or contribute to any act which could constitute the unauthorized practice of law; and (b) establish attorney-client relationships, set fees, give legal opinions or advice or represent a client before a court or agency unless so authorized by that court or agency; and (c) engage in conduct or take any action which would assist or involve the attorney in a violation of professional ethics or give the appearance of professional impropriety.
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.
Codes for Corporations and Non-Profit Organizations
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:
- Giving or accepting of gifts or services between an employee and a client or official
- Making promises regarding company performance and responsibilities
- Profiting from, or enabling others to profit from, inside information regarding company performance, financial stability or internal problems
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
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.
Codes for Individuals
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:
- Respect for another’s property
- Refraining from violence against another
- Treating others with civility
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.
- I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me.
- You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them. For I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing mercy to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My Commandments.
- You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.
- Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it.
- Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God is giving you.
- You shall not murder.
- You shall not commit adultery.
- You shall not steal.
- You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
- You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, nor his male servant, nor his female servant, nor his ox, nor his donkey, nor anything that is your neighbor’s.
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.