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Ethical codes are adopted by organizations to assist members in understanding the difference between 'right' and 'wrong' and in applying that understanding to their decisions. An ethical code generally implies documents at three levels: codes of "business ethics, "codes of conduct for employees, and codes of professional practice.
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Many companies use the phrases ethical code and code of conduct interchangeably but it may be useful to make a distinction. A code of "ethics will start by setting out the values that underpin the code and will describe a company's obligation to its stakeholders. The code is publicly available and addressed to anyone with an interest in the company's activities and the way it does business. It will include details of how the company plans to implement its values and vision, as well as guidance to staff on ethical standards and how to achieve them. However, a code of conduct is generally addressed to and intended for employees alone. It usually sets out restrictions on behavior, and will be far more compliance or rules focused than value or principle focused.
A code of practice is adopted by a profession or by a governmental or non-governmental organization to regulate that profession. A code of practice may be styled as a code of "professional responsibility, which will discuss difficult issues, difficult decisions that will often need to be made, and provide a clear account of what behavior is considered "ethical" or "correct" or "right" in the circumstances. In a membership context, failure to comply with a code of practice can result in expulsion from the professional organization. In its 2007 International Good Practice Guidance, Defining and Developing an Effective Code of Conduct for Organizations, the "International Federation of Accountants provided the following working definition: "Principles, values, standards, or rules of behavior that guide the decisions, procedures and systems of an organization in a way that (a) contributes to the welfare of its key stakeholders, and (b) respects the rights of all constituents affected by its operations."["page needed]
Ethical codes are often adopted by management, not to promote a particular moral theory, but rather because they are seen as pragmatic necessities for running an organization in a complex society in which moral concepts play an important part.
They are distinct from "moral codes that may apply to the culture, education, and religion of a whole society. It is debated whether the politicians should apply a code of ethics, or whether it is a profession entirely discretionary, just subject to compliance with the law: however, recently codes of practice have been approved in this field.
Often, acts that violate ethical codes may also violate a law or regulation and can be punishable at law or by government agency remedies.
Even organizations and communities that may be considered criminal in nature may have ethical codes of conduct, official or unofficial. Examples could include "hacker communities, bands of thieves, and "street gangs.
The Jewish "Written Torah and "Oral Torah comprise the earliest and best preserved ethical code. Adapted to every field of actual day-to-day life for thousands of years, Jewish "Halakha is the oldest collective body of "religious laws, "laws and "jurisdictions still in use.
Codes seek to define and delineate the difference between conduct and behavior that is "malum in se, "malum prohibitum, and good practice. Sometimes ethical codes include sections that are meant to give firm rules, but some offer general guidance, and sometimes the words are merely aspirational.
In sum, a code of ethics is an attempt to codify "good and bad behavior".