A (Brief) History of Codes of Ethics

Formalized codes to dictate ethical behavior began to rise to prominence in corporations and government in the 1980s as a response to increasing instances of corruption and wrongdoing on the part of such institutions. Wide-ranging in content, these early codes promised fair business practices and responsible treatment of employees. Although designed primarily to address or head off public concerns about government and corporate misdeeds, they also had the effect of standardizing corporate and government behavior in an ethical direction.

A 1989 analysis of the content of 150 corporate codes of ethics found that many contained elements detailed in the list below:

This analysis found, however, that these codes rarely regulated elements such as a corporation’s impact on the environment or compliance with anti-trust laws.

However, a more recent (2004) analysis that expanded its scope to include multinational business corporations found that more than half of these codes included some verbiage about the corporation’s ethical obligation to the environment. This change demonstrates an evolution in codes of ethics that parallels contemporary issues in society. Other common elements of codes of ethics examined in 2004 included product quality, following applicable laws/regulations, and transparency.

Highly situational, corporate codes of ethics often depend on the company or institution for which they are created. As an example, the code of ethics for office supply company Pilot, which makes pens and other writing utensils, addresses usual elements like respect and transparency but also makes note of the need for fair competition and respect for intellectual property rights – something important in a field crowded with competitors. The code of ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists, by comparison, sets high standards for ethical practice by journalists in order to protect the integrity of that profession.

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