Virtue Ethics and Corporate Codes of Conduct

In the wake of what seems to be ongoing corporate scandal, much attention in recent years has been given to corporate codes of ethics. Corporate codes of ethics aim to define the kind of behavior that is deemed morally acceptable within an organization (Rossouw, 2008).  According to Rossouw (2008), “codes of ethics can vary on a spectrum from short value-based aspirational documents that articulate the core ethical values by which an organization intends to abide, to very detailed directional guidelines that prescribe specific behavioral standards to members of organizations” (p. 78).  But how effective are codes of ethics? How might the be used to bring about authentic value-based behavior rather than compliance? How can they best be utilized to bring about the vision for corporate behavior they so often describe?

Erwin (2010) suggests that “as the adoption of corporate codes becomes the norm, the incidence of insincere, rhetoric-based codes never designed to move beyond a cursory treatment of issues is likely to increase” (p. 536).  This is where virtue based ethics comes in. Virtue ethics emphasizes the characteristics of decision-makers (Penn State, Lesson 03, 2018). In fact, virtue ethics allows for mistakes as long as people are committed to improving (Penn State, Lesson 03, 2018). It is agent-centered versus act-centered (Russouw, 2008). In the corporate context, virtue ethics describes the qualities that are desired of organizational members, the character traits the organization values, rather than criteria by which to evaluate behavior (Russouw, 2008). It seeks to cull out those traits that will not only guide individuals in corporate life, but that consistently play a role in their ethical navigation of all “domains of live” (Russouw, 2008, p. 79). Virtue based ethics brings an overarching sense of an ethical code, one that transcends various domains of one’s life; it seeks to describe the essence of individuals that comprise an organization and to define the common moral thread that connects those individuals. It focuses on “the moral quality of the character of the corporation and its members” (Russouw, 2008, p. 81).

Virtue ethics rests heavily on the education and training of individuals as well as the availability of role models to help individuals understand and engage in ethical deliberation (Bonde, 2013). The implications of this for a corporate code of value based ethics relates to onboarding processes, corporate mentoring, and the opportunity to access the thought processes of organizational leaders. There are implications related to supervision of employees and the ability of employees to speak openly and honestly about their own thought processes and receive feedback from others in a non-threatening, safe, and open context for the purpose of individual growth. It involves a sense of caring and investment in one another, and a sense of shared accountability. This, according to Russouw (2008) brings about “an engagement with ethics on a much deeper level” (p. 83). This is how we bring about organizational cultures characterized by ethical behaviors.



Bonde, S., Firenze, P., Green, J., Grinberg, M., Korijin, J., Levoy, E., Naik, A., Ucik, L., & Weisberg, L. (2013, May). A framework for making ethical decisions (Links to an external site.)Links to an external site.. Retrieved from

Erwin, P. (2011). Corporate codes of conduct: the effects of code content and quality on ethical performance. Journal of Business Ethics. 99: 535-548.

Rossouw, D. (2008). Aristotle in the modern corporation: from ethics codes to an ethical culture. University of Pretoria. Retrieved from


One Comment

  1. Omar Paul Strohm February 25, 2018 at 4:18 PM #

    A very thought-provoking blog post, Cindy. By producing a corporate code that is designed to serve as at least a quasi-ethical code, it would seem the organization would be seeking to provide a normative environment whereby the organization, its operations, and its employees benefit. However, the citation you used from Erwin would seem to indicate these codes are put in place more to have something in place than to truly affect organizational behavior. This is troubling, but almost certainly true on at least a limited basis. If an organization were attempting to strengthen the ethical culture within the organization, it should not undertake such an endeavor without a great deal of forethought. Lip service, limited buy-in, and lack of enforcement will surely undermine any half-hearted effort in this regard.

    It would be difficult to create virtue in an organization and its workforce where virtue was not already established and thriving. It would be difficult to enshroud people who might lack virtue in a newly-virtuous environment. But, this would almost certainly be necessary when establishing a virtue-based ethical code and corporate culture. Nonetheless, I agree with your promotion of the concept. Clearly, the organization would have to work to establish such a culture, the degree of this labor dependent on the current organizational culture and climate. Furthermore, candidates for employment should be screened by including questions related to virtue, and newly hired employees should be on-boarded by providing materials designed to enhance their individual virtue. Establishing a virtuous environment is a noble goal.

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