Ethical codes are adopted by organizations to assist members in understanding the difference between right and wrong and in applying that understanding to their decisions. An ethical code generally implies documents at three levels: codes of business ethics, codes of conduct for employees, and codes of professional practice.
Many organizations use the phrases ethical code and code of conduct interchangeably, but it may be useful to make a distinction. A code of ethics will start by setting out the values that underpin the code and will describe an organization's obligation to its stakeholders. The code is publicly available and addressed to anyone with an interest in that organization's activities and the way it operates. It will include details of how the organization plans to implement its values and vision, as well as guidance to staff on ethical standards and how to achieve them. However, a code of conduct is generally addressed to and intended for the organization's leaders and staff. It usually sets out restrictions on behavior, and will be far more focused on compliance or rules than on values or principles.
See also: Professional ethics
A code of practice is adopted by a profession (or by a governmental or non-governmental organization) to regulate that profession. A code of practice may be styled as a code of professional responsibility, which will discuss difficult issues and difficult decisions that will often need to be made, and then provide a clear account of what behavior is considered "ethical" or "correct" or "right" in the circumstances. In a membership context, failure to comply with a code of practice can result in expulsion from the professional organization. In its 2007 International Good Practice Guidance, Defining and Developing an Effective Code of Conduct for Organizations, the International Federation of Accountants provided the following working definition: "Principles, values, standards, or rules of behavior that guide the decisions, procedures and systems of an organization in a way that (a) contributes to the welfare of its key stakeholders, and (b) respects the rights of all constituents affected by its operations."[page needed]
Listed below are a few example statements from the professional codes of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ):
Ethical codes are often adopted by management and also employers, not to promote a particular moral theory, but rather because they are seen as pragmatic necessities for running an organization in a complex society in which moral concepts play an important part.
They are distinct from moral codes that may apply to the culture, education, and religion of a whole society. It is debated whether the politicians should apply a code of ethics, or whether it is a profession entirely discretionary, just subject to compliance with the law: however, recently codes of practice have been approved in this field.
Often, acts that violate ethical codes may also violate a law or regulation and can be punishable at law or by government agency remedies.
Even organizations and communities that may be considered criminal in nature may have ethical codes of conduct, official or unofficial.
Codes seek to define and delineate the difference between conduct and behavior that is malum in se, malum prohibitum, and good practice. Sometimes ethical codes include sections that are meant to give firm rules, but some offer general guidance, and sometimes the words are merely aspirational.
In sum, a code of ethics is an attempt to codify "good and bad behavior".