The definition of “ethics”1 according to Nelson and Trevino is “the principles, norms, and standards of conduct governing an individual or group” (p. 13). The success of any group, whether a community, business organization, or family unit depends on the development of a set of agreed upon ethics or rules of behavior. Sharing ethical standards fosters cohesion in groups and allows a harmonious work and living environment. Human civilization was built on the development of ethical standards and the expectation that all individuals will abide by these standards. Even cross culturally there are many ethical codes that human beings can agree upon. Most individuals, from every nation, will agree that dishonesty, stealing, and hurting other individuals (or animals) on purpose is unethical. From this basic standard groups develop individual codes of conduct that align with their cultural environment.
How Ethics Develop
The human individual begins developing an ethical standard or character2 almost from birth. As a small child one is taught right from wrong, develops empathy for others through behavioral observation, and learns to behave in a manner acceptable in his or her immediate environment. For most children the parent plays the key role in helping to develop an ethical system3. The parents’ system derived from their parents’ ethical codes as well as what they personally have experienced over their lifetimes. For many families the church or a religious belief has a great deal to do with how ethics and morals are defined. As a child grows older he or she begins to attend school. It can honestly be argued that everything one needs to know to be successful in society one learns in kindergarten: Clean up after yourself, be kind to others, don’t take something that isn’t yours, always tell the truth, share with others, get plenty of rest, and there is nothing better than a warm cookie and cold milk. The values4 and ethics developed over time shape not only who the individual becomes but also how he or she can interact successfully in society.
My Underlying Ethical System
My underlying ethical system is quite simple and can be expressed in two words “harm none.” Raised by a single parent within the Church of Christ the concepts of sacrifice, family, and gratitude were a huge part of my life. The church and its ethical standards were and are the basis for my morals5. The standard doctrine of the church provides a basic guideline for acceptable behavior, the example of Jesus Christ provides the ideal. With the church as my basis I have continued to study different religions and learned to be less of an exclusivist and more accepting of others. I cannot presume to know the mind of God and do not pretend that my soul is any more precious than that of any other in creation. There is God and there are the theories and suppositions of man. The cerebral conflicts over the meaning of God’s Word(s) should remain cerebral rather than being fought out on bloody battlefields as they have been for too many centuries. My underlying ethical system flows from the One through the sages, through my parents, through the books and the prayers and will return to the One as will all things. Harm none as All is indeed One.
Potential Effects of the “Harm None” Ethic
An individual’s character should be consistent in all areas of his or her life. The personal value system or moral code carries over into the professional environment and translates into ethical business behavior6. Adhering to the ethical statute of “harm none” potentially allows for the physical and emotional protection of all individuals. If the premise is embraced by all individuals within the group, whether it is an office or an entire company, there is more potential for each individual to make concessions for the benefit of the entire group. In other words, when the whole group has the same goal and sees each other as equals they are more likely to cooperate and concede a personal preference for the good of the group or project. In my personal experience this philosophy comes into play in almost any everyday situation. It encourages me to think of others before I act or speak. Often situations in the office environment can create ethical dilemmas7. The “harm none” philosophy takes on a whole new level in the office. Generally speaking rather than being concerned about not harming anyone a step further must be taken and make sure to help in every situation possible. If an individual is caught up on his or her case load and has the option of going home early or wasting time surfing the Internet but his or her coworker is still buried in paperwork, ethically the worker finished should assist his or her coworker so that everyone has the option of going home. It comes down to being considerate of others.
Why Ethics are Needed in an Organization
Ethics are needed in an organization because people care about ethics. Individuals want to be treated fairly. Establishing a code of ethics or guidelines for behavior lets everyone know what to expect, not only in terms of how they should conduct themselves but also in terms of how they can expect to be treated. Even though the idea of a corporate code of ethics can be traced back to the 1960s, it is only in the last half of the 20th century that big business, higher education, and government entities have adopted a written code of ethics as a fundamental step in establishing a managerial structure (Rotta, 2007). Corporations that conduct themselves ethically have been proven to attract better employees and enjoy higher levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty, which over time leads to a better bottom line (Nelson & Trevino, 2007).
A standard code of ethics is the backbone of any group or society and begins with each individual. Together groups agree on what behaviors are acceptable among them, but individuals are faced with conforming their personal lives to those standards every moment of every day. It is in within the scope of society to set acceptable standards of behavior for the good of all citizens involved. It is in the hands of the individual to ensure that these guidelines are adhered to and the goals and ideals of civilized society realized.
Key Terms: 1. Ethics – The principles, norms, and standards of conduct governing an individual or organization (Nelson & Trevino, 2007, p. 13); ethics form the basis for determining the correct action, or moral behavior in a particular situation. 2. Character – Moral actions based on duty driven ethical principles. These include trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship (Joseph Institute, 2009). 3. Ethical system – Underlying ethical principles which a person uses to make decisions. 4. Values – Those things or actins upon which the individual or organization spends time and money. 5. Morals – Actions based on one’s underlying ethical principles. 6. Ethical business behavior – Behavior that is consistent with the principles, norms, and standards of the business practice that have been agreed upon by society.” (Nelson & Trevino, 2007, p. 19) 7. Ethical dilemma – “Situations concerning right and wrong where values are in conflict” either for the individual or for the organization (Nelson & Trevino, 2007, p. 3)
Nelson, K.A. and Trevino, L.K. (2007) Managing business ethics: Straight talk about how to do it right. (Fourth Edition). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Rotta, C.P. (2007) Rules of behavior. The Internal Auditor; June 2007; Vol. 64, pg. 33. Retrieved from ProQuest database August 28, 2010.