When Larry Ponemon first got into the field of business ethics more
than 20 years ago, many corporations didn't understand the importance of ethical
"Most companies didn't see the connection between good business and good
ethics," says Ponemon. He is the founder of a couple business consulting
Today, in the wake of scandals at companies like Enron and Tyco, more businesses
appreciate the importance of having someone on hand to make executives more
The Ethics Officer Association had 19 members when it was incorporated
in 1992. Today, it has almost 1,000 members.
"The career is growing with the exponential growth of concern with ethical
issues in every part of our society," says Cornelius Von Baeyer. He is an
independent consultant on workplace ethics.
"It used to be that there was a story or two per week on ethics that appeared
in the media. Now such stories are daily, and, in fact, many stories have
an explicit ethics issue embedded in them."
Von Baeyer says an ethics officer usually provides advice to employees
faced with ethical dilemmas. Officers also accept complaints or allegations
about misbehavior and attempt to resolve them.
He says many of those charged with handling a company's ethics also have
other responsibilities. "Often, managers responsible for human resources,
legal services or even operations are asked to take on ethics-related duties
as part of their normal work."
But some companies employ full-time ethics officers. And many experts
expect that the demand for these professionals will grow.
Ponemon says the career can be rewarding.
"A career in the business ethics field has a major advantage over other
jobs," he says.
"Not to sound too smug, but helping people and companies out of a serious
jam or helping senior management solve complex problems can be very rewarding."
Von Baeyer and Ponemon say that public and stock market sensitivity to
scandals at Enron and the like play a big role in the increased recognition
of corporate ethics officers.
But there are a number of other factors, including stricter laws. Plus,
a number of business schools have included ethics education as part of their
Still, only about a third of accredited business schools require business
ethics coursework, says Diane Swanson. She is the founding chair of the Ethics
Education Initiative at Kansas State University's College of Business Administration.
She first got interested in the field while completing a PhD in business
administration. At that time, she realized that ethics education was a major
part of many business programs.
"When I realized that I got more ethics education while taking my MA in
economics than most MBAs get, I began to be concerned about the lack of ethics
education in most business schools," she says.
"The eruption of corporate scandals is no surprise to me, given the amoral
philosophy of business promoted in a lot of business degree programs."
She says ethics officers can help fill that gap by providing training and
advice that some business schools don't offer. For instance, ethics officers
at many corporations have created help lines that employees can call to report
and clarify ethical concerns.
However, the role of the ethics officer in a company also depends greatly
on how much a corporate CEO or board of directors values ethical integrity.
"Ethics officers can only make a difference if CEOs want them to make a
difference," Von Baeyer says.
"The support of the CEO is crucial. No doubt, in some organizations, the
ethics program is primarily window dress. That's a pity, given the real benefits
that can be drawn from it, including increased customer loyalty, product reputation,
investor confidence, employee productivity and risk reduction."
Ponemon agrees that some companies hire ethics officers just to reassure
the public, and then bury them in the chain of command.
"Unfortunately, many ethics officers are too low in the corporate hierarchy,"
he says. "They don't have the visibility or power to resolve serious problems."
The experts agree that, to be effective, the ethics officer should answer
directly to the CEO or board of directors.
"The signals sent from the top are those that really matter," says Swanson.
"If the CEO is committed to improving ethics, he or she can elevate the role
of ethics officer meaningfully."
You'll need training in a number of areas. That includes not just business
ethics, but also business law, human resource management and business and
Von Baeyer also recommends getting involved in professional activities
as soon as possible.
"There are numerous round tables and workshops and conferences on various
aspects of ethics in cities across Canada," he says.
"Such events and the organizations sponsoring them are generally happy
to accepts students and beginners and those who simply have an interest in
Ponemon says a good ethics officer also must have a number of personal
qualities that can't be learned. Obviously, that includes a strong personal
moral code. "You must be principled, with the backbone to stand up for what
is right, true and fair," he says.
However, other qualities also are important, including good people skills
and a strong commitment to your work. "This is a tough field," Ponemon says.
"To survive, you must be dedicated."
But even in ideal situations, Von Baeyer stresses that the ethics officer
isn't a cure-all. "It's obviously impossible for all decisions with an ethical
component to be sent off to an ethics officer for resolution," he says.
"The ethics official can only help employees to think through the ethical
issues, remind them of basic corporate values and help defend them if their
careful ethical decisions come under fire."
Ethics and Compliance Officer Association
A professional association that also provides training
Ethics Resource Center
Lots of resources here
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