Personal ethics and business ethics are essentially the same thing, but there can be significant differences in how they are applied and when they are appropriate to express. Both are moral principles that drive behavior, and often, an individual’s personal ethics code looks quite similar to a company’s business ethics code.

The primary difference between personal ethics and business ethics is whose behavior they drive and the repercussions that result. Companies and individuals have different interests, different legal obligations and different social expectations placed upon them.

Business vs. Personal Ethics

Personal ethics often include values like:

  • Openness.
  • Honesty.
  • Friendliness.
  • Respect for others.
  • Loyalty.
  • Personal responsibility.

Some personal ethics and business ethics are essentially the same thing. Values that can find their way into both personal and business ethical codes include:

  • Honesty.
  • Integrity.
  • Transparency.
  • Accountability.
  • Fairness.
  • Kindness.
  • Commitment to sustainability.
  • Always choosing the action that will do the least harm.

There are certain values that tend to appear more in business ethics codes than in personal ethics codes. These are values that relate directly to working as part of an organization and operating within a community as an organization. Many individuals also hold these values as part of their personal ethics codes, recognizing that the difference between personal ethics and business ethics is usually how they are applied to situations rather than specific values themselves. Examples of primarily business-focused values include:

  • Punctuality.
  • Abiding by the law.
  • Nondiscrimination.
  • Abiding by industry standards.
  • Commitment to ethical sourcing.
  • Commitment to fair trade and fair worker treatment.
  • Commitment to worker safety.
  • Confidentiality.

Moral Conflicts Over Clashing Ethics

Business and personal ethics can meet in a workplace scenario and cause an individual internal conflict and stress. A few examples of an individual’s personal ethics clashing with his business and work ethics include:

  • A marketer promoting a product he knows to be of lesser quality than its previous iteration as “new and improved.”
  • A doctor personally feeling that a homeopathy is a poor choice for treating a patient’s condition but having to respect the patient’s bodily autonomy to choose homeopathy over the doctor’s suggested treatment.
  • A judge who feels cannabis should not be illegal sentencing an individual found guilty of a cannabis-related offense.
  • A college admissions officer encouraging a prospective student to enroll despite feeling that the student would not perform well in college.

Potential Workplace Problems

When an individual brings her personal ethics to work and applies them to the challenges she faces in the workplace, she can cause problems for herself, the company and the company’s consumers. The nature of the problems she causes depends on the nature of the ethical clash.

For example, a marketer knowingly promoting a low-quality product can cause consumers to lose trust in the company after realizing the drop in quality, but speaking up about what he feels to be dishonest advertising could jeopardize his position with his company. A college admissions officer who discourages a student from pursuing a program that is not a good fit for her might help the student avoid debt and the stress of a program she cannot handle, but it could also skew the program’s admission statistics and potentially spark unfavorable discussion about the university on social media.

There are also instances where applying one’s personal ethics to a workplace decision could cause legal ramifications. One example of this is a manager who, out of commitment to his Christian faith and belief that following its accompanying principles is necessary for effective leadership, refuses to promote employees who do not identify as Christian. This is an act of religious discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and can subject the company to a discrimination claim.

Developing an Ethical Code

An individual’s personal ethics code usually has its roots in her childhood. Her ethical foundation can come from a variety of early influences on her life, such as her family, her religion, her community and her school. Over the course of her life, the individual’s experiences and changing circumstances can drive her to rethink and reshape her ethical code multiple times.

That same individual’s sense of business ethics can come partially from her personal ethics code, but it also partially stems from her experiences in the workplace. Just like her personal ethical code, an individual’s personal business ethics can change over the course of her life.

A company’s business ethics code is different from an individual’s business ethics code. While an individual might have a personal code of how to perform her job and conduct herself at work, like never discussing her religious views in the workplace or refusing to engage in workplace gossip, she is also expected to act within her company’s business ethics code. This set of ethics, which can include values like always keeping clients’ personal information confidential and only working with suppliers that engage in environmentally sustainable practices, holds employees to a specific set of behavior and defines the company’s brand.

Pros and Cons of Evaluation

An important difference between personal ethics and business ethics is that business ethics can be quantified more easily. Many companies routinely evaluate their ethical codes and run diagnostics to determine how they can make more ethical choices. Evaluating a business’s ethical code can be a time-intense and resource-intense process. Before conducting an evaluation, the company should consider the pros and cons of evaluation.

Pros and cons of evaluation can arise not only from the evaluation itself but from its results. A company’s leaders might find that its employees are largely an ethically minded group, or it might find that ethical violations occur regularly and that intense restructuring and retraining is necessary to correct the company’s course.

Specific Pros and Cons of Evaluation

Pros of ethical evaluation include:

  • Understanding employees’ views on the company ethical code.
  • Finding the company’s ethical strengths and weak spots.
  • Determining ways to make more ethical decisions.
  • Determining new methods for training employees on ethical conduct.

Cons of evaluating a company’s ethics include:

  • Cost.
  • Time spent on the evaluation.
  • An ethics audit can make employees feel self-conscious.

Using a Business Ethics Code

Once a company has a business ethics code in place, its leaders have a clear set of guidelines for a variety of accompanying actions. These include:

  • Developing a code of conduct for employees.
  • Creating a code of conduct for vendors and other third parties who work with the company.
  • Altering its branding to communicate its ethics to consumers more effectively.
  • Determining nonprofit partnerships that are in accordance with its ethical code.
  • Developing new employee-training techniques that emphasize the company’s ethics and teach new hires how to act in accordance with them.

Having a strong ethical code in place can reduce the company’s chance of facing lawsuits or scandals related to employee misconduct. The company’s code of conduct should clearly spell out exactly which disciplinary measures employees can expect for violating their employer’s ethical code and give employees a secure avenue through which they can anonymously report ethical violations they witness.

By making ethical compliance everybody’s job, an employer can empower employees to do the right thing and strengthen their commitment not just to the company’s ethical code but their own personal ethical codes for business and for life. Employers can make this clear during employee training sessions by emphasizing that personal ethics and business ethics are essentially the same thing.