Ethics are a system of behaviors that facilitate good decisions when a dilemma poses a choice between competing interests. These dilemmas arise in various circumstances and may be evident in the daily activities of institutions, agencies, people, and companies. The ethical decisions of any or all of these can affect the general society in profound ways. Sometimes, the organizational culture of an institution or company assists the ethical behavior of its participants, but this outcome is not always the case. Some organizations fail to support ethical behavior and its members and may even negatively influence the ethical treatment of clients, workers, and vendors. Furthermore, organizational culture and ethics can change over time, and this variability must be monitored and accommodated. A closer look shows why some businesses and institutions integrate ethical behavior more easily into everyday conduct than others and how ethical behavior can change.

• What Are Ethics?

Ethics are modes of behavior that are generally agreed to produce favorable outcomes for the proximate group and the larger society. Ethics are much more than how people feel, which can vary from circumstance to circumstance and can be influenced by several issues of self-interest. Ethics are also unrelated to the religious viewpoint, which intrinsically advocates ethical standards of the highest kind. Religions vary and generally apply to only those who subscribe to a particular religion, and so many people would be outside the influence of a body of ethics. Nor is ethics a function of law. Laws change from time to time and from place to place. Although ethics may influence legal understanding, it is not always the same sensibility. Nor do ethics necessarily reflect the acceptable standards of a society. A society can become ethically corrupt, as many have throughout history. Ethics reflect universal ideas of fairness, justice, and correct behavior.

• What Influences Ethical Behavior?

Several factors contribute to ethical behavior, and these qualities are often reflected in the institutions that affect the general society:

  • Knowledge – A capacity to have at hand important facts that may influence the outcome 
  • Wisdom – Experience of past behavior and history that provides information for sound decision-making. 
  • Self-Control – Restraint of emotions and impulses that can influence the outcome of decisions 
  • Justice – Fair treatment of all involved  
  • Compassion – The ability to empathize both internally and externally with a range of different life conditions and viewpoints 
  • Integrity – The ability to manage self-interest in the pursuit of more significant goals of the institution, company and the society 
  • Courage – The ability to stand up to pressure to maintain an ethical standard in all activities 
  • Transcendence – The understanding that behavior must transcend usual considerations to preserve a more significant benefit for all.

• Understanding Organizational Cultures

Organizational cultures are observable patterns of behavior, or “what we do” in the pursuit of daily tasks. These fundamental influences are present whether the organization is a government agency, non-profit, or private corporation. They affect not only how others perceive the organization but also how the organization sees itself. There are several examples of Organizational Ethics to consider:

  • Inspirational and idealistic codes of conduct are celebrated and encouraged by recognizing and reinforcing good decision-making and conduct. 
  • Regulatory codes ensure that ethical conduct is consistent throughout the organization, expected at all levels, and enforced via a non-biased basis. 
  • Educational and learning-oriented codes of conduct encourage individuals to expand their ability to make good decisions by enhanced learning opportunities and by continually examining other organizations with high ethical standards.

• The Relationship Between Ethics and Cultures

Organizational cultures impose a habit of judgment and action that workers, managers, and decision-makers implement daily. When an organization has a robust ethical underpinning, interactions with clients, suppliers, and others occur within these constraints regularly. Workers avoid stepping outside the bounds of the ethical standards to preserve their value within the organization. Similarly, they also understand that compromising the defined ethical standards is detrimental to the organization and, in turn, to their interests. So, the value of solid ethics within an organization becomes apparent. The perceived benefit of the moral philosophy causes members to internalize the standard, thereby strengthening it. When ethical standards are compromised, the entire organization suffers. It takes considerable effort from directors and managers to reinstate an atmosphere of ethical decision-making when a violation occurs.

Ethical behavior can become a part of organizational culture when the basic concepts are reinforced regularly and in all facets of the organization’s work. Simply put, lapses are corrected quickly, and workers can rely on support for their actions within the recognized ethical structure of the organization.