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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 companies 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 a company's obligation to its stakeholders. The code is publicly available and addressed to anyone with an interest in the company's activities and the way it does business. It will include details of how the company 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 employees alone. It usually sets out restrictions on behavior, and will be far more compliance or rules focused than value or principle focused.
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, difficult decisions that will often need to be made, and 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."
Ethical codes are often adopted by management, 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.
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. Examples could include hacker communities, bands of thieves, and street gangs.