Qualifications for Ethics Officers

by Ellie Williams; Updated September 26, 2017
Ethics officers help companies and employees abide by ethical and legal codes.

Ethics officers ensure that company practices adhere to legal and ethical standards. Their duties may include every aspect of this process, including creating a code of ethics, establishing penalties for violating ethical codes and educating employees about the organization’s ethical principles. They also help the company make changes to the code to reflect changes in business practices or public opinion. Ethics officers need a solid understanding of business practices, industry standards and law.

Business Background

Ethics officers often hold the title “Chief Ethics Officer,” and like other executive-level employees, they need a solid business background. They usually have at least an undergraduate degree in business, with many employers preferring an MBA. An ethics officer must understand basic business practices, because a company’s ethical standards influence everything it does. This includes a diverse array of subjects, including how it markets its products or services, how it treats its employees, what information it shares with the public and the impact it makes on its community and on natural resources.

Legal Knowledge

A company’s ethical code depends partly on state, federal and even international laws. An ethics officer needs a good understanding of the laws that apply to the industry and to the company. The Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics includes this task in its professional code of ethics, saying that compliance and ethics officers must ensure, to the best of their abilities, that their employers abide by all relevant laws. Some ethics officers have a legal background, but a law degree isn’t a requirement. However, they must be skilled in researching how laws apply to their organizations and must know what kind of lawyers to consult for guidance.

Understanding of Industry Standards

Ethics officers need a thorough understanding of how their industry operates, including everything from the conditions employees usually work in to what tools and practices are required to what is standard policy and procedure. Most industries have a stated or unwritten ethical code that influences how everyone in that field conducts business. Doctors, for example, pledge to follow the Hippocratic Oath, which states that their first priority is to “do no harm” to the patient. Ethics officers ensure that their company adheres to any industry-wide ethical code or pledge. They also monitor the ethical codes used by other organizations within their industries, to ensure that their companies' standards are at least as strict.

Insight into Organizational Behavior

Ethics officers must also know how to communicate a company’s ethical policies to employees. According to the “Businessweek” article “Calling the Ethics Cops,” corporate ethics officers lead training programs designed to educate employees about ethical practices within the company and when dealing with people or entities outside the companies. Because of this educational component, ethics officers must understand how ethical standards impact the corporate culture, and what kinds of ethical dilemmas are likely to arise. They must also be skilled in knowing the most effective ways to encourage compliance to ethical codes.

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