Enron, WorldCom, and other corporate debacles have generated a substantial interest in the role of ethics in business, and the fallout from these scandals touches every records manager. Records managers recognize that the compliance requirements of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) are designed to provide documentation that an organization is, in fact, acting ethically and correctly documenting its financial integrity. Despite the fact that the SOX requirements strictly apply only to publicly traded businesses operating within the United States, in actual fact they have become the "golden standard" not only in the United States, but also in Europe and Asia. Increasingly, these requirements are also being applied by private companies and not-for-profit organizations to demonstrate that they are conducting their business ethically and in a financially sound manner.
Other events around the world further demonstrate the tight links between ethical actions and the appropriate management of information. In Australia, for example, the Heiner case (see www.caldeson.com/RIMOS/ heiner.html) highlighted inappropriate destruction of documents by a government agency to avoid embarrassment and litigation. In Canada, records were hidden and later destroyed to prevent the discovery that supplies of blood had been tainted with the HIV virus.
One of the roles of ethics is to provide a framework for sound decision-making, whether in ordinary daily life or in specific business instances. Thus, it is important for records managers to have some basic knowledge about ethics and the different ethical approaches available to assist them in daily decision-making.
Ethics involves defining, evaluating, and understanding concepts of right and wrong behavior. Contrary to popular opinion, what is ethical and what is legal are not always the same thing. Ethics often outline conduct that exceeds what may be the legal requirements of society.
Ethics are usually divided into three aspects: metaethics, normative ethics, and applied ethics. Metaethics investigates where ethical principles have their source[s] and how they are explained. Normative ethics defines moral standards or guidelines that regulate right and wrong conduct. Finally, applied ethics involves examining specific controversial issues, such as animal rights, environmental concerns, or nuclear war. Applied ethics uses metaethics and normative ethics to help discern moral paths. This article focuses on business ethics, a specific type of applied ethics, and, more narrowly, how business ethics principles and approaches can be used by records managers in their professional lives.
Four Approaches to Ethical Decision-Making
Over the centuries, there have been many attempts to understand what ethical reasoning is and to provide a framework for understanding how to apply ethical reasoning in decision-making. Among the many approaches to ethical reasoning, four have become the most frequently used in relation to business ethics. Each focuses on a different approach to moral reasoning: rules, results, character, and stories.
The rule-based approach, also known as &ontological ethics (from the Greek word for duty), works to discover the rules or principles that guide moral actions. Once those rules have been uncovered or defined, a person has a duty to follow the rules in decision-making. Immanuel Kant is probably the most famous proponent of this approach. In the business ethics sphere, Ronald Green has developed a comprehensive and sophisticated approach to decision-making based on the &ontological approach.
The result-based approach, also known as utilitarianism, analyzes moral actions from the viewpoint of the results that flow from ethical decisions. A key principle in the evaluation of results is "the greatest good for the greatest number." However, there has always been substantial discussion to define the "greatest good" and to determine who is included in the "greatest number. …