The Challenge of Writing a Business Ethics Policy

Photo Credit: rrafson (Wikimedia Commons)

Business ethics is one of those vague ideas that most people agree should exist. Unfortunately, writing a business ethics policy can be very difficult. 

For starters, people bring all sorts of different ideologies into an organization. The challenge that stems from this reality is that individuals may all have different sources of authority. When it comes to ethics, determining guiding principles always comes down to authority. 

Another challenge is that words can be entirely too subjective. Words like “fair,” “just,” or “respect” may have a variety of meanings depending on the situation. Unfortunately, these are exactly the types of words that are often put into policy statements, even though they may be extremely difficult to quantify. 

In a society based on capitalism, ethics gets into a sticky area. After all, should a company apologize for the fact that their primary goal continues to be the maximization of revenue? Is it “wrong” for companies to use the subtle psychology of advertising to convince consumers that they should acquire products and services that they do not really need? Not necessarily, but it isn’t hard to find gray areas that can quickly become a little troubling.

This isn’t to suggest that all companies are out to manipulate their customer bases, because there are organizations that seek to do the “right thing” (whatever that means). The problem is that business is unapologetically self-sustaining. In other words, employees will justify a wide variety of behaviors in order to appease the sometimes nameless, faceless stakeholders that may or may not put pressure on people to succeed.

What’s the point that should be taken away from this article? The main point is that policy statements that are written about behavior must have measurable outcomes. Words should be scrutinized so that interpretation is minimized. Obviously not all scenarios can be anticipated, but if an organization is serious about their ethics policy, they will find ways to make their principles quantifiable. 

In addition, policy statements must be revisited on a regular basis. Too often a company will write a policy statement and then bury it deep in a manual or a drawer. In theory, ethics is about organizational ideology, which means that it must be part of the culture.

Business ethics policies can be written, and written well. However, those companies and organizations that are serious about their behavior will take the time to write something that truly holds everyone accountable.

How have some of the ethical scandals occurred in the business world? Simple. People made decisions that they were comfortable making. If you are your own moral compass, then you only have one person to answer to when it comes to making decisions.

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