What Are the Differences Between Compliance and Ethics?

Most compliance efforts involving ethics typically focus on standards, regulations, and specific laws. One of the key components is centered on sanctions and punishments.

An ethics approach focuses on our moral codes and the applications to these issues.

Laws and regulations set down explicit rules, and are enforceable by the power of the state, federal government, or other recognized authority. Police and courts are the means to enforce the law. A consensus of some kind is reached about penalizing certain kinds of behavior and due process in theory is applied.

While none of us can possibly know many of our vast laws, we are aware of many of these through our cognizant knowledge and awareness in advance of any action we might take. Laws must be explicit and published.

One definition of ethics I like is the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group. It is within this philosophy though that morality moves well beyond compliance. Not only are we regulating behavior, but the core consists of morals, principles, and values that tend to be more general.

While moral transgressions are viewed negatively, it is not always possible to enforce a moral rule or find a consensus that supports social punishment.

Law and morality have their differences and intersect in many areas. Many laws point to our morality or moral code, but they are limited to those that meet the conditions of sanctions, enforceability, and explicitness.

Compliance with law is required and mandatory. Violations of law can result in serious penalties including fines, sanctions, and imprisonment. Individual and organizational reputations can be harmed seriously.

I recommend that a compliance approach be a starting point and a high priority. Standing alone, compliance can not survive without training and organizational culture that promotes high ethics standards.

As suggested above, laws reflects a moral minimum. In general they leave our morality untouched or are behind our moral codes. We know that powerful interests sometimes wish to keep them that way.

It is a mistake for organizations to focus only on legal training because it covers too little ground. Nor should organizations concentrate only on their moral codes leaving themselves exposed to mistakes that could harm their reputation, hurt employees, and demoralize stakeholders/shareholders.

Legalism should strive to focus on the letter and spirit of the law. You don’t want legalism characterizing the culture and only locking down on punishment avoidance and negative consequences.

It is vital to establish ethical objectives and ethics leadership that means business. They must always be present and not absent. Striving to do the right thing means understanding what the best choices for all are!!




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