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Ethics vs. The Law

When I first heard about the Secret Service scandal, I also learned that the behavior in which certain agents may have engaged is apparently legal in Cartagena, Colombia.  I initially thought to myself, “How clever.  They haven’t technically done anything illegal and must, therefore, have thought they would escape scrutiny.”  But, really – can that be right??

While legal, the behavior in question here is clearly not ethical.  The Secret Service story is quite a base illustration of this phenomenon which we, unfortunately, see played out time and time again in both the business world and in politics.  Take Congress's trading on inside information, for example.   Or certain firms, such as Apple and Glencore, allegedly profiting off the backs of workers who were mistreated – perhaps not illegally under the laws of their countries.   (I should note, of course, that the President did finally sign into law the STOCK Act, prohibiting insider trading by Congress.  In an election year – hmm, imagine that?) 

When we consult with our customers on their Codes of Conduct, we often recommend including an ethical decision-making tree to assist employees in determining whether to proceed when faced with a gray area.  Stories like those noted above remind us that it’s not simply about whether certain behavior is legal.  As such, ethical decision-making matrices should include questions and other “food for thought” designed to help employees to consider not only the legal implications of their potential actions, but also the ethical connotations. 

According to a few of the articles I’ve read, the United States Secret Service does, apparently, have a “basic Code of Conduct.”  Perhaps the organization should also institute periodic training and communications to remind its agents that “just because it’s legal doesn’t make it right.”

Andrea Falcione

Andrea Falcione served as Senior Vice President, Client Services and Chief Ethics Officer at SAI Global Compliance. She managed the company’s Advisory Services group and provided a high level consulting services to clients.

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