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.