“Ethics” Cops

Here’s a BusinessWeek Online story I apparently missed last week, “Calling the Ethics Cops”, by Joseph Weber.

Corporate America is a surprisingly corrupt place. The high-profile scandals may have been just the tip of the iceberg. Graft, self-dealing, dishonesty, sexual harassment, and other unethical activity is strikingly common, according to recent surveys by search firm Hudson Highland Group and the Ethics Resource Center. The outfits found that between 31% and 52% of U.S. workers have witnessed co-workers operating unethically.

But that could change. One byproduct of the scandals is growth in the ranks of ethics officers. A professional group for in-house corporate cops, the Ethics & Compliance Officer Assn., began with just 16 founding members in 1992, grew to 600 three years ago and has since doubled to 1,250. For the unethical these days, says Keith T. Darcy, executive director of the Waltham (Mass.)-based ECOA, “there are no secrets and no places to hide.”

This article is worth reading, though it’s depressingly focused on behaviour that is outright criminal, rather than ethically complex or interesting. The Ethics & Compliance Officer Association actually just recently added the word “Compliance” to its title. Until recently, they were known simply as the Ethics Officer Association. Adding “Compliance” is a bit of honesty-in-advertising, I think, since it seems that compliance (making sure a company complies with legal & regulatory requirements) is most of their focus. Still, notice that the article uses the word “ethics” a whole lot, even when it’s talking about preventing behaviour that would normally just be considered outright “illegal.” Since when is stealing stuff a matter of ethics? Of course, stealing stuff is (usually) unethical. But using the word “ethics” for such cases is likely to a) make people forget that the behaviour in question is criminal, and/or b) make people conflate ethics & the law to such an extent that they risk wrongly concluding that if something is legal, it must also be ethical.

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