A code of ethics is simply a series of principles guiding employee conduct that may or may not be legally binding, but is certainly morally binding. The violation – or a pattern of violations – of a code of ethics is generally considered grounds for suspension or termination of employment or participation in a professional or social organization. Codes of ethics are common in many professions, including medicine, business, social work, financial services, and law, with the American Medical Association, American Bar Association, and National Association of Social Workers each requiring its membership to comply with that code. Because some of these organizations, such as the American Bar Association, is directly linked to state licensing processes, violations of provisions of the code of ethics can result in revocation or suspension of that license.
As a code of ethics is a moral exercise, its provisions usually involve commitments to conduct one’s professional responsibilities according to certain generally universal principles. As the student’s request did not specify any particular profession, what follows is a list of possible provisions applicable to a general code of ethics.
- Commitment to the customer or client: The professional pledges to act only in the best interest of the customer or client.
While this provision may seem eminently logical, in some professions there can be a conflict between what is in the professional’s financial or professional interest and what is in the client’s best interest. A physician, for example, is expected to act in the best interest of the patient even if that results in lower financial remuneration for the physician.
- Informed Consent: The professional shall not act without the explicit and informed consent of the client.
Lawyers, physicians, stock brokers and others should not make decisions for their clients without first attaining those clients’ consent. That consent must be predicated upon the clients’ affirmation that he or she understands precisely what is about to happen, even if the consequences or results can not necessarily be foreseen. A stock broker, for example, cannot (or isn’t supposed to) predict with absolute certainty which direction a particular stock will take, and must explain to the client the basis upon which the broker is making a particular recommendation to buy or sell.
- Conflicts of Interest: The professional shall act in the best interest of the company for whom he or she works, or for the welfare of the client irrespective of the professional’s individual interest.
What this means – and it is similar in intent to #1 – is that the professional should not place him- or herself in a situation of having to choose between his or her own self-interest and that of the company or client. In other words, the professional should abstain from engaging in activities outside of work that can afoul of that professional’s responsibilities to his or her employer or client.
- Gifts and Favors: The professional shall not accept gifts or favors from individuals with business relationships that could intersect with the interests of the company.
Just as with the limitations on meals, gifts and favors that members of Congress and their staffs are permitted to receive from companies and organizations with an interest in the outcome of legislative processes, professionals in the private sector should not accept any kind of gift or favor from companies or individuals the interests of which could jeopardize the integrity of the processes by which business or professional decisions are made. In medical offices, it has been common practice for pharmaceutical company representatives to present gifts to office staffs. Those gifts do not have any kind of direct strings attached, but the implication is clear: the representatives want those medical offices to give their products – in effect, the medications produced by the companies they represent – preferential treatment when office staff are recommending or prescribing medications for patients.
- Confidentiality: The professional, and this is especially important in medicine and law, will protect the confidentiality of the customer or client.
Most major companies, including credit card issuers and medical facilities, now routinely provide customers with written documents setting forth their policies and legal obligations with respect to the protection of the customers’ personal information. Physicians are not supposed to share their patients’ personal medical information with other physicians without the patients’ written consent, and lawyers are absolutely banned from violating the sanctity of what is known as “attorney-client privilege.”
- Dignity of the patient or client: Both the National Association of Social Workers and the American Medical Association Codes of Ethics include provisions requiring members to treat their clients with dignity and respect. In other words, demeaning behavior towards a patient or client is a violation of the code.
- Respect for colleagues and subordinates: Professionals shall treat each other and shall treat subordinate staff or employees with dignity and respect.
Internal behavior of employees towards each other – and pernicious office gossip certainly qualifies – can have a very corrosive effect on the organization’s cohesiveness and productivity. Provisions in codes of ethics prohibiting conduct that is demeaning to other employees can help minimize instances of abusive behavior.
- Nondiscrimination: Professionals shall not discriminate or act in a prejudicial nature with respect to the gender, ethnicity, religion, or sexual orientation of any other human being.
It is already against the law to discriminate in hiring and promotion decisions on the basis of race, gender, religion, etc., but policing such prohibitions internally is sometimes easier said than done. By including such a provision in a code of ethics, management is making clear that, irrespective of whether a law is being broken, discriminatory behavior will not be tolerated.
- Protection of Intellectual Property: Professionals are prohibited from disclosing proprietary information without the express written consent of the individual or entity that legally or morally owns that information.
Trademarks and copyrights are fine, but codes of ethics should include a provision requiring respect for the proprietary information of all parties, whether that information is the rightful property of clients, competitors, or any other individual or company.
- Use of company property: Professionals or employees shall not use company property in a manner not explicitly authorized by the company.
Companies may supply executives or others with use of company vehicles, computers (especially laptops), cell phones, and other equipment. The code of ethics should include a provision barring employees from using that equipment for purposes not authorized or specified at the time such equipment is issued. For example, company-issued cars should not be used for personal business. Company-issued laptops should not be used for personal business or for personal entertainment.
Just want to thank you for your response. Very well done.
you are welcome, and thank you for the comment.