It is easy for a company to establish ethical guidelines. The difficult part is following through. If the employees are able to break the ethical guidelines without retaliation, or if profit and business goals trump the importance of the ethical guidelines, then the guidelines may as well not exist. The most important way to improve business ethics is to create an ethical code and then enforce it as written.
For a company to truly follow its code of ethics, following the ethical guidelines must take priority over other business goals. There are many examples of companies and their employees choosing to cut corners in order to produce more, sell more, save on resources, or avoid problems. For examples, companies may pass emission limits, employ sweat shops and slave labor, use harmful chemicals, or hide information from customers. In these cases, the company may have an ethical code barring or limiting certain activities, but these activities take place nonetheless in order to meet a quota or improve profits. If a corporate culture chooses to ignore the code of ethics in order to further the business goals, then the guidelines lose their power.
If ethical guidelines can be broken without consequences, then the company effectively has no ethical guidelines. Examples include employees harassing other employees without retaliation, lying to their bosses without consequences, and using company property for personal use without permission, again without retaliation. An effective code of ethics must have both ethical rules and a plan of action when the rules are not followed. In order for a code of ethics to be respected, there must be consequences when it is not adhered to.
In order for a company to have an effective ethical code, employees must be able to see results when they report a breach of practice. It takes bravery for an employee to come forward with an ethical complaint. If the situation goes wrong, then the culprit is able to retaliate against the person who complained, turning the situation against them. The manager can also choose to ignore the problem, or side with the culprit. The culprit may face retaliation but not be made to stop, or be made to stop without being given retaliation. A company must supply a healthy environment in which employees are not afraid to notify the management about ethical breaches, or else ethical breaches will continue beneath the surface.
To keep a business ethical, employers must be sure that they candidates they hire will respect the ethical code. Every company has its own corporate culture, and the ethical code is part of this. Ideally, every employee will have roughly the same vision of what is okay and what is not okay in business practice. A great way to ensure this is to ask ethical questions during job interviews, and pinpoint the candidates who have the same ethical vision. With all of the employees carrying the same vision of an ethical business, keeping to the ethical code will come naturally.
At times, the ethical code needs to be modified, and sometimes it is best for this to happen from the inside. With a group of ethically minded employees, it is ideal to encourage the employees to come forward with their own visions of ethics with the hopes of incorporating them into the business practices. This keeps the company vision informed and up-to-date, and also provides the environment that the employees wish to work in. The ethics of a business can be improved from the inside by asking the employees.
For a business to operate ethically, the ethical guidelines must be not just created but enforced. It must be made clear that the ethical code is more important than meeting quotas, and there are consequences for breaching it. A corporate culture must be raised around the ethical guidelines, and ideally the employees will also be able to form the ethical code from inside that corporate culture. An ethical code is only adhered to if it is both believed in and enforced.