A former colleague of mine who taught business ethics once explained her class to me this way; law is about the difference between right and wrong, ethics is about the difference between right and “that ain’t right.” Made perfect sense to me.
Employers will list ethical behavior as one of the most highly desired traits sought in new hires. Or any hires, for that matter. No one really steps up and says they want low ethics. Therefore, employers want employees who can discern between what is just right, and what is legal but probably not the right thing to do. They will prefer employees who choose the right thing to do. Even when their culture or management practices push associates to take questionable sales actions to meet quotas or earn bonuses.
The classic “ethics” case that comes to mind is Enron. The problem is that Enron was brought down by ILLEGAL behavior, not UNETHICAL. Fraudulent accounting practices and insider trading inflated the value of the company. Fraud is illegal. You don’t do it. People go to jail. Just ask Ken Lay and Jeffery Skilling.
Unethical behavior is technically legal, but just not something you do. That’s why most Colleges of Business will incorporate “ethics” into its curriculum in some way. Unlike honesty, ethical behavior is something we feel we can teach. It’s like mom and dad teaching you right from wrong. It may not be illegal to tease kids on the bus, but you’re an asshole if you do it.
Yesterday a student in my office was on his way out and stopped suddenly. He said he hadn’t been able to find the book for the test he had tomorrow. Amazon? Bookstore? “No, I mean a free copy.” Seriously?
Copyright law is cut and dry. If you don’t pay someone for their intellectual property, you are stealing. Same as taking candy from a 7-11. Same as taking gold bullion from Fort Knox. Same as torrenting movies and music. Same as taking your neighbor’s car, or engagement ring, or flat screen TV. You stole.
That’s not a problem of ethics. That’s a problem or morals. I can’t fix that…