Benchmark Ethics: Ethics is More Than Compliance

Violating a legal regulation and violating an ethical principle are not the same thing. Ethics and law are related, of course—or at least we hope they are. But confusing them, not seeing the differences, or, worst of all, reducing an ethics program to a compliance program (usually staffed by attorneys rather than ethicists), is a big mistake.

In fact, reducing ethics to little more than compliance may lead to more non-compliance and more regulatory infractions than if ethics (the real thing) were allowed to share the corporate agenda with compliance. This is not a minor distinction.

“Compliance” means “operating in conformity with” stated regulations, especially governmental ones. It means that you are not transgressing the limits defined by law. For more information on compliance, visit, the official web site of the government watchdog established in 1995 to monitor and enforce safety, health, and workplace rights of employees. Or check out Compliance Magazine for its helpful perspectives on workplace safety government regulations.

No problem with all of this. Business and society need regulations and laws along with interpretive help and enforcement muscle. Compliance is a good thing.

But compliance is not ethics.

The leading Bay Area television news crew (KTVU, Channel 2, ran a February 6, 2003, story on “White-Collar Crime: A Lesson in Ethics 101.” It was a good piece on white collar crime and its penalties; it had nothing much to do with ethics.

The United States Sentencing Commission promulgated a new set of guidelines for sentencing organizational offenders in 1991. One of the goals of the commission and its new sentencing guidelines was to get organizations to establish their own compliance programs. Doing so could get offending corporations a significant break on fines and penalties for any infractions. Many corporate “Compliance and Ethics” offices and programs have been established over the past decade with this incentive in view (See USSC Chair Diana E. Murphy’s Iowa Law Review report (Jan 31, 2002) on the first decade).

The Ethics Officers Association has grown from 12 members to more than 700 since 1991. According to EOA’s membership surveys, about one-third of the corporate Ethics Officers in their organization have legal degrees and experience. The other two-thirds do not appear to have much in the way of ethics training or experience. I am sure this is gradually changing but my point is that, while the ethics label is more and more frequently used, it is legal and regulatory compliance and expertise that is the real game here for many corporations.

Why is compliance not enough? Because an exclusive focus on laws, regulations, and compliance restricts our attention to the edges of the playing field. Cross this line and you are busted. But if you play the game by always working as close to the edges as possible, you are likely to stumble (if not intentionally sneak) across the forbidden limit and get caught.

We could say that legal compliance is the first, minimal step in running an ethical organization. But ethics is not ethics if it is satisfied with asking “what is legal?” Legality does not always mean “ethically right.” The ethics question is “what is right?”

Ethical codes and principles often enough do spell out “law-like” boundary conditions, but these are based not on what is legal, but on what is right—on what protects people in this generation and the next from harm, on what enables them to live in freedom, peace, and health. Ethical boundary conditions are usually drawn well back from those legal edges we might otherwise trespass.

But even this does not yet get to the heart of what ethics is really about. Ethics is not primarily about defining what is wrong, with setting boundaries in this “law-like” fashion. At its core, a sound ethics holds up a positive vision of what is right, what is good, what is worth pursuing—as a kind of guiding star for our decisions and actions.

Individuals and organizations that have a robust, authentic ethics program will spend their major energy articulating and pursuing positive principles, values, and virtues. Observing moral boundaries—and regulatory boundaries—is important but secondary to this pursuit of the right and good.

So, bless those compliance folks for their efforts…but let’s not forget the higher call of a robust, positive ethics in our organizations.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.