Validating the Code of Ethics

By Briggs, William; Bernal, Thomas | Communication World, May-June 1992 | Go to article overview
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Validating the Code of Ethics

Briggs, William, Bernal, Thomas, Communication World

Tom Peters, business management's answer to Indiana Jones, has characterized capitalism and democracy in society as "messy" and says that anyone not perpetually confused about ethical issues is out of touch with the richness of the world. From ancient times forward, one way -- perhaps the only way -- out of this behavioral temple of doom is the study of ethics.

For the past decade or more, business ethics has enjoyed a bull market in the marketplace and academia, with a proliferation of corporate credos, ethics courses, professional codes and some very high visibility transgressions. In his best-selling book on business ethics, "Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases," Manuel G. Velasquez, Ph.D. says: "Business ethics is applied ethics ... the attempt for each of us to apply what we believe to be good' and 'right' to every situation which confronts us at work, regardless of what the situation is or in what line of work we are engaged. In its simplest form, business ethics is a specialized study of moral right and wrong as it applies to business policies, institutions, and behavior."

Its applied nature makes business ethics so confounding. Simultaneously, it requires the most intellectually honest reasoning while dealing with the most anomalous of life's situations. Few people are so well-equipped, and organizations are nothing more than aggregates of people serving other people. And the more we study the applications without studying the philosophical underpinnings, the deeper into the morass we sink. We're simply looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Before we can become ethically efficient we must become ethically secure.

The foundations of ethics cannot be found by appealing to conscience since your conscience may differ from mine -- or one of us may not have a conscience at all. Religion, while helpful, falls short because it ultimately incorporates ethics into a belief system that goes where only angels dare tread. By including the legal axiom of prima facie equal rights (valuing the rights of others) the grail comes within reach. Ethics are no longer arbitrary, nor imposed from the outside, but become in the interest of individuals and society at large to maintain.

How communicators can promote ethical behavior

Organizationally, this notion refers to proper behavior toward each of the organization's stakeholders. And no one deals more closely with these constituent publics than the communicator. From research, Cornelius Pratt of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, identified five reasons communicators play an important organizational role in ethical leadership:

1. Through two-way, symmetrical public relations, practitioners view their role as standard bearer for social responsibility;

2. Managers perceive ethics as crucial and important;

3. Business ethics is synonymous with practitioner ethics;

4. Practitioners are well-suited to drive corporate behavior in response to public need;

5. As boundary-spanners and communicators, their activities are most likely to be used as benchmarks for public perception of the organization.

According to John Budd, Jr., chairman of the Omega Group, New York City, "In the sense that we regularly deal with such intangibles as trust, credibility and reputation -- those abstract values that quantitative-minded executives have difficulty with -- we are helping executives make those ethical decisions. ... The real issue of ethics is not so much how well we know the rules and stipulations but how we counsel on the subject."

Examining the IABC Code

Alas, the enormousness of this ethical opportunity transforms the newsletter editor or media specialist into a guardian of the holy ark. To help shed some light through the inevitable gray areas, organizations establish codes of ethics or standards of conduct. Along with the guidelines come the issues of enforceability, the U.

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