Why Ethics Codes Matter

The ACM’s Committee on Professional Ethics is in the process of revising the organization’s Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. Comments on the first draft are due January 15, 2017.

It’s fair to ask why this should matter to you. In a word: support. We should always hope that management and clients will act ethically. Ethics codes can help them reach ethical decisions. But if they don’t, and if you decide to take a stand, having written ethical code on your side can be very helpful.

If your employer or client asks you to do something unethical, it’s easier to refuse if you can point to an authority like an ethics code. You can then keep pointing to it when you escalate your concern to HR or management. You—or the press—can cite it in public, like the New York Times did in a story about the San Bernardino iPhone unlock case. And, if things really go south, someone like me can cite it to a judge, or ask your unethical boss to read it to a jury. (Oracle cited the ACM code in its API copyright case against Google.) Wouldn’t you rather have those options than not?

Securities regulations require public companies to have published ethics codes. (Sometimes they’re titled “Code of Conduct”, so look for that on the company’s investor relations site.) Here are examples from Facebook, Alphabet, and Twitter. These company codes don’t usually cover everything you might want, and may only apply to upper management, but they’re a start. There may be other codes in circulation as well, which you should be able to request from HR. 

If your profession has organizations with their own codes, like the ACM’s, you can read them, understand them, and be prepared to use them. You can volunteer for the committee that writes or revises the code, too.

Author: Ansel Halliburton

Ansel Halliburton is a lawyer specializing in entrepreneurship and intellectual property litigation.

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