Ethics can be conceived of as the basic moral ground rules through which we lead our lives. That is, the basic principles of right and wrong that human beings apply in making decisions. A code of ethics is the criteria used to make decisions about right and wrong, and therefore is also a code of conduct. What is right and wrong can vary according to situation, so there are different codes of ethics for different social contexts, including the workplace.
Almost every workplace code of ethics starts with a statement that every employee must only engage in "honest and ethical conduct" or "act with integrity," establishing that each individual must take responsibility for her actions in the workplace. This section of the code of ethics usually includes an overview of potential conflicts of interest arising with personal and professional relationships.
Responsibility to the Organization
All workplace codes of ethics also include a statement of employee responsibility to the organization. This statement usually includes both references to confidentiality (of both business secrets or important business processes) and compliance with all applicable local, state, and federal laws.
Responsibility to the Public
Most workplace codes of ethics will include a section on an employee's responsibility to deal with customers, suppliers, dealers, and others in an honest and fair manner. Many also include a statement of the importance of maintaining the confidentiality of customer information.
Many codes of ethics today will also include a section describing possible ethical dilemmas and potential solutions. Ethical dilemmas often revolve around conflicting responsibilities in disclosing information, and sometimes there is no "right" answer. This section is a relatively new addition to workplace codes of ethics, but it is a growing trend.