Lesson 1: Professional Codes of Ethics
Many professions create and expect their members to operate under a code of ethics specific to their field. Professions design and implement these codes in hope that they will ensure that their members’ professional actions follow traditional ethical guidelines. But what are professional codes of ethics, and where do they come from? Understanding the context for professional codes of ethics helps us more clearly see their roots in a profession’s values.Next Page: Values and Ideals – The Cultural Building Blocks of Ethical Codes
Values and Ideals – The Cultural Building Blocks of Ethical Codes
Each culture places value and importance on certain qualities and characteristics. Cultures pass these values, such as empathy or work ethic, down from generation to generation and they are inscribed in the institutions of that culture. For instance, we can see the Mormon religion’s value of faithfulness to the church in its process of tithing, or expecting its members to donate one-tenth of their annual salary.
Cultures also hold certain ideals, or expectations for an ideal type of person. Sometimes these ideals are specific to a type of person – an ideal mother, for instance, is thought of as warm, supportive, and nurturing. Sometimes these ideals are more general: An ideal American citizen is always loyal to the country, making thoughtful, informed decisions on its governance. Often unattainable, ideals set a standard for people to strive toward.
A society’s values and ideals inform the principles, or directives on how a person should act or behave, that the society operates under. These principles, often informal and unwritten, dictate appropriate behavior by members of the society. One classic example, the Golden Rule (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) advises people to treat others in the way that they would want to be treated. This principle, or advice to a person on how to act, is based upon virtues such as kindness and fairness and ideals such as universal respect and equality.
Codes, Policies and Laws
Because individuals must often work together for a harmonious society, cultures have developed ways of formalizing certain principles that they feel people in the society must follow. These more formalized principles, structured into systems referred to as codes, policies, and laws, vary somewhat based on their formality and whether some element of enforcement and/or punishment exists within them.
Codes, the least formal system of providing guidance for behavior, advise a person in the society on how to behave. They often lack provisions for enforcement or a system that dictates appropriate punishment for violating elements of the code. Policies, which have somewhat more structure, often control behavior within some sort of institution such as a workplace, university, etc.
The most formalized and commonly known guidelines for behavior, laws, have both a formal structure for enforcement and clear penalties for violations of the law. It’s important to remember that all three of these systems are rooted in ideals and values of a culture: Our laws against fraud, for example, exhibit an ideal that people be treated fairly and receive accurate, complete information in business dealings.
A (Brief) History of Codes of Ethics
Formalized codes to dictate ethical behavior began to rise to prominence in corporations and government in the 1980s as a response to increasing instances of corruption and wrongdoing on the part of such institutions. Wide-ranging in content, these early codes promised fair business practices and responsible treatment of employees. Although designed primarily to address or head off public concerns about government and corporate misdeeds, they also had the effect of standardizing corporate and government behavior in an ethical direction.
A 1989 analysis of the content of 150 corporate codes of ethics found that many contained elements detailed in the list below:
- Provisions about corporate treatment of employees
- Guidance for inter-employee relationships
- Treatment of “whistle-blowers”
- Definition and prevention of bribery and conflicts of interest
- Regulations for employees’ political action and contributions
This analysis found, however, that these codes rarely regulated elements such as a corporation’s impact on the environment or compliance with anti-trust laws.
However, a more recent (2004) analysis that expanded its scope to include multinational business corporations found that more than half of these codes included some verbiage about the corporation’s ethical obligation to the environment. This change demonstrates an evolution in codes of ethics that parallels contemporary issues in society. Other common elements of codes of ethics examined in 2004 included product quality, following applicable laws/regulations, and transparency.
Highly situational, corporate codes of ethics often depend on the company or institution for which they are created. As an example, the code of ethics for office supply company Pilot, which makes pens and other writing utensils, addresses usual elements like respect and transparency but also makes note of the need for fair competition and respect for intellectual property rights – something important in a field crowded with competitors. The code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists, by comparison, sets high standards for ethical practice by journalists in order to protect the integrity of that profession.
Roles, Responsibilities, and Shortcomings of Codes of Ethics
Writing about the engineering field, Michael Davis suggests that codes of ethics play a number of key roles in a profession. By guiding individual behavior, they prevent misbehaviors that would harm other people – or the profession itself. By setting a standard for acceptable ethical behavior in a profession, codes of ethics allow other members of the profession to determine when an individual is acting unethically and take steps accordingly in order to protect the reputation of the profession. Finally, Davis suggests that a robust code of ethics actually helps define a profession by clearly outlining what ethical practitioners do, and do not do, in their jobs.
Research on codes of ethics in practice has shown that the implementation of these codes as a tool can be as complex as the ethical dilemmas themselves. In 2001, summarizing 19 prior research articles about the effectiveness of codes of ethics, Schwartz noted that not even half (8) of them showed a significant impact on ethical behavior. Nine of the studies showed no significant relationship at all between a company’s code of ethics and the ethical behavior of its employees.
Employees’ response to (and potentially their use of) codes of ethics may be influenced by their perception of the code’s role in guiding behavior, and Schwartz suggests eight metaphors for how people might understand the code of ethics – rule-book, signpost, mirror, magnifying glass, shield, smoke detector, fire alarm, or club. These differing concepts of the role of a code of ethics can cause confusion or miscommunication between management and employees. For instance, management may expect employees to read the code and follow it literally as one would a rule-book, while some employees may see a code of ethics as more of a general signpost for behavior or, quite differently, a smoke detector or fire alarm to identify and address unethical practices.
This potential mismatch in perceptions of the code of ethics and its role in the institution makes it vital that the reasons for the code be communicated effectively and its ideals and values be embedded within the culture of the organization. Communication also plays an important role in ensuring that employees are aware of the code’s existence and what it entails. Employees who know about the company’s code of ethics not only tend to act more ethically but also tend to perceive the employer in a more positive light, especially if management and key company leaders are vocal in their support of the code.
Shortcomings of Codes of Ethics
Some controversy does exist in the discussion of professional codes of ethics. Writing from a general business perspective, Brien draws on the work of other ethicists to lay out a case for the ineffectiveness of professional codes of ethics: Often not well known, they do not lay out prescriptive rules for action in all cases and may ultimately be ineffective in reducing unethical behavior. Finally, they might merely exist to allay fears about the ethics of a particular profession. To sum, Brien states:
Codes minister only to the ethical since the unscrupulous will not be persuaded to be ethical or deterred from wrongdoing by a code any more than a thief will be reformed by reading the criminal law.
In fact, some researchers have suggested that codes of ethics might in fact actually fail the profession, rather than bolster it, because such codes are subject to (and in fact require) interpretation. Additionally, multiple codes often guide professional behavior, sometimes at cross purposes. Ultimately, these researchers conclude that while ethical guidelines seem an attractive shortcut to the “right” answer in an ethical quandary, often they fail to meet the task: Professionals seeking to act ethically may derive more value from sophisticated, critical ethical decision-making skills than ethical codes that are often too vague to fit a certain situation.
In spite of the potential problems with codes of ethics, their presence – coupled with good communication about them – can benefit a profession by setting standards for ethical behavior.
Case Study: The Great Bacon Shortage (Hoax) of 2012
How a British Trade Organization Created an Artificial “Porkocalypse” With an Unethical Press Release
The National Pig Association describes itself as “the voice of the British pig industry.” This trade association serves as the voice of the UK’s pork producers and promotes the interests of the industry. Its web site and associated press releases provide industry-specific information that is designed for a media audience.
However, an attempt by the organization to attract a wider audience met with unintended consequences. A description of the situation below is followed by the aspects of the PRSA Code of Ethics that should have advised the organization against such an unethical action.
In 2012, the National Pig Association attempted to tap into the rising popularity of bacon by sending a press release with a provocative lede: “A world shortage of pork and bacon next year is now unavoidable.” As hoped, the announcement received widespread media coverage, including somewhat alarmist headlines trumpeting the oncoming shortage of this beloved food.
There was just one problem with this: The so-called shortage was an oversimplification of a complicated agricultural situation, and a misrepresentation of both the situation and the group’s intent. It’s true that pig production was down by about 10% that year, although this decline could hardly be called a shortage, and true scarcity was unlikely to exist in any foreseeable circumstance.
Course of Action
It’s true that the pig farming industry was facing challenges in 2012: A drought that summer had drastically reduced the corn output in many countries, and the rise of ethanol had meant that feed corn made up a smaller market share than previously. Pig farmers were definitely going to be facing higher prices for corn, raising their overall expenditures.
By announcing a shortage, the industry group attempted to prepare customers for a rise in bacon prices. The media relations effort also intended to encourage supermarkets and other vendors to pay pig farmers an increased price for their products in recognition of the higher costs of farming in that year.
The efforts were certainly well-intentioned in their advocacy for the client (the UK’s pig farmers), gamely attempting to pave the way for higher prices to offset the farmers’ higher expenditures. However, the PRSA speaks specifically of responsible advocacy, an adjective that might be considered questionable here. The entry on advocacy in the PRSA’s professional values continues:
We provide a voice in the marketplace of ideas, facts, and viewpoints to aid informed public debate.
Arguably, this press release did not aid informed debate, instead sparking an overreaction on Twitter and internet media over the forthcoming “baconpocalypse.”
Because of its oversimplification of the complex situation causing the rise in pork prices, this action also does not uphold the professional value of honesty, defined by the PRSA with this statement:
We adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public.
The overdramatization of the pork scenario, while it does have some basis in the facts of the corn shortage, probably does not live up to the highest standards when it comes to truth and accuracy.
The National Pig Association’s actions in this situation also run afoul of the code provision regarding enhancing the profession, which states:
Public relations professionals work constantly to strengthen the public's trust in the profession.
Moral of the Story
Unfortunately, the National Pig Association’s alarmist actions in the pursuit of attention have the opposite effect of strengthening the public’s trust in public relations, portraying the function instead as being willing to stoop to a ham-handed attempt at grabbing the spotlight.