HR Support on Ensuring Workplace Ethics

Editor's Note: Promote a workplace of integrity by adopting an organizational ethics program.

Marta MoakleyOverview: Ethics focus on what should be done, in a moral sense, and not necessarily on what must be done, in a legal sense. Sometimes ethics and legal requirements coincide. However, ethical principles, especially in evolving areas of the law or industry, are not always clear. Employers that tend to push ethical boundaries may soon be faced with hefty fines and penalties from evolving case law or from emergent legislation that abruptly outlaws a morally questionable, but previously legal, practice.

The Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 (SOX) grew out of just such a situation. SOX set enhanced standards for public companies, executives and accounting firms in response to the collapse of Enron and other business giants due to questionable corporate practices.

Best practices in ethics encourage employers to adopt an internal ethics program that is consistent throughout all levels of the organization. However, certain employers may be legally required to do so in order to satisfy the Federal Acquisition Regulations mandate to compete for a federal contract, or to satisfy standards under the Federal Sentencing Guidelines. Ethics programs should include a code of ethics and a communications plan, and be accompanied by adequate staff training.

Trends: Regulators have been focusing on global employers' anti-bribery compliance. In addition, various federal and state agencies have created internal Offices of the Whistleblower in order to process complaints and offer rewards. The adoption of adequate corporate ethics programs is essential to managing these organizational risks.

Author: Marta Moakley, JD, Legal Editor

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