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What is a Code of Ethics?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A code of ethics is a set of guidelines which are designed to set out acceptable behaviors for members of a particular group, association, or profession. Many organizations govern themselves with such a code, especially when they handle sensitive issues like investments, health care, or interactions with other cultures. In addition to setting a professional standard, a code of ethics can also increase confidence in an organization by showing outsiders that members of the organization are committed to following basic ethical guidelines in the course of doing their work.

The format of a code of ethics can vary widely. Unlike more straightforward employee guidelines and codes, this document usually starts with a section that sets out the purpose, aspirations, and goals of the parent organization. For example, the 2002 code of ethics for the American Psychological Association (APA) begins: “Psychologists are committed to increasing scientific and professional knowledge of behavior and people's understanding of themselves and others and to the use of such knowledge to improve the condition of individuals, organizations, and society.”

Following a general introduction to the function and goals of an organization is a section dedicated to setting out specific behavior standards for members. This section usually covers potential ethical issues such as confidentiality, partisanship, or misuse of information. In addition to addressing theoretical ethical minefields, a code of ethics often contains a section which outlines the procedures for handling grievances, both outside and inside the organization.

A well written code of ethics will be easy to follow and very clear, with sections that people can point to in order to illustrate specific issues. In the sense of organizations like the APA, members agree to support the code both because it is good practice and because it promotes their organization. A code of ethics also stands behind most scientific experimentation, ensuring that the results are valid and that the testing was carried out in an ethical way.

In the business world, some companies like to use a code of ethics to ensure that their employees act in a responsible manner. Such a business may also be viewed more favorably by members of the public, which means that a code of ethics is a sound business decision. Adherence to a code may also be required for continued employment; an employee manual may include a clearly outlined code of ethics, for example, with a note that failure to follow it is grounds for termination.

Many people also live by a personal code of ethics. Although this may not be clearly written out, you may have some strong personal beliefs about various issues which help to guide your choices in life. Some people believe that having a strong personal ethical code and abiding by it is a very important tool for maintaining self integrity.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By bluv2laf — On Aug 01, 2014

My question: How does the code of ethics, code of professional conduct and professional boundaries guide me in my professional conduct?

What impact do they have on my personal life as a health professional?

By amypollick — On Jun 30, 2013

It all depends on the company on how closely an employee is bound by that company's code of ethics. There are suggested codes, which are just that, but these can negatively affect an employee's performance ratings if the employee continually violates the codes. If an employee signs an agreement to abide by the company's code of ethics, then that employee can be fired for not adhering to the said code. Most companies, for example, have random drug testing, and the employee agrees to it as a condition of employment. Therefore, if an employee is asked to take a drug test, he or she can be terminated for refusing.

Some companies are stricter than others about codes of ethics, and they may primarily apply to the aspects of the company that deal with proprietary information. It would probably be a violation, for instance, to share some sort of trade secret with a friend. It just all depends on the individual company.

By anon294767 — On Oct 03, 2012

What are at least seven Codes of Ethics?

By anon285689 — On Aug 17, 2012

Can someone explain how a code of ethics works in determining ethical and social responsibilities of marketers?

By anon219886 — On Oct 04, 2011

Yes, if you do not meet the new code of conduct they can ask you to resign or may go to the extent of firing you.

By anon155336 — On Feb 23, 2011

What is the time bar for an employee, after he resigns from his last company. I mean how much time has to lapse before starting to work with another similarly business oriented company?

By raconteur08 — On Dec 02, 2010

Can employers craft Codes of Ethics and are employees bound by it? What happens if an employee refuses to sign on a new Code of Conduct? What are the implications? What if I am already employed and the company adapts a new policy that impacts on my situation? Can they ask me to resign? If a company adapts a strict moral code and I fail to meet it, can they fire me?

By anon85536 — On May 20, 2010

What are nine proper workplace ethics?

By anon51690 — On Nov 08, 2009

No. A realtor should maintain a confidential, professional relationship with their client, and this would include keeping all information belonging to that client private. The only acceptable way around this is, of course, if your client wishes you to do this.

By NikkiRhodes — On Jan 11, 2009

Is it ethical for a Realtor to disclose financial information on a client without permission to other realtors from different realty companies as well as their clients?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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