Growing Industries and Careers: The Growing Role of Corporate Ethics Officers

Source: Career Pro News
When Larry Ponemon first got into the field of business ethics more than 20 years ago, many corporations didn’t understand the importance of ethical behavior.

“Most companies didn’t see the connection between good business and good ethics,” says Ponemon. He is the founder of a couple business consulting practices.

Today, in the wake of scandals at companies like Enron and Tyco, more businesses appreciate the importance of having someone on hand to make executives more accountable.

The Ethics Officer Association had 19 members when it was incorporated in 1992. Today, it has almost 1,000 members.

“The career is growing with the exponential growth of concern with ethical issues in every part of our society,” says Cornelius Von Baeyer. He is an independent consultant on workplace ethics.

“It used to be that there was a story or two per week on ethics that appeared in the media. Now such stories are daily, and, in fact, many stories have an explicit ethics issue embedded in them.”

Von Baeyer says an ethics officer usually provides advice to employees faced with ethical dilemmas. Officers also accept complaints or allegations about misbehavior and attempt to resolve them.

He says many of those charged with handling a company’s ethics also have other responsibilities. “Often, managers responsible for human resources, legal services or even operations are asked to take on ethics-related duties as part of their normal work.”

But some companies employ full-time ethics officers. And many experts expect that the demand for these professionals will grow.

Ponemon says the career can be rewarding.

“A career in the business ethics field has a major advantage over other jobs,” he says.

“Not to sound too smug, but helping people and companies out of a serious jam or helping senior management solve complex problems can be very rewarding.”

Von Baeyer and Ponemon say that public and stock market sensitivity to scandals at Enron and the like play a big role in the increased recognition of corporate ethics officers.

But there are a number of other factors, including stricter laws. Plus, a number of business schools have included ethics education as part of their programs.

Still, only about a third of accredited business schools require business ethics coursework, says Diane Swanson. She is the founding chair of the Ethics Education Initiative at Kansas State University’s College of Business Administration.

She first got interested in the field while completing a PhD in business administration. At that time, she realized that ethics education was a major part of many business programs.

“When I realized that I got more ethics education while taking my MA in economics than most MBAs get, I began to be concerned about the lack of ethics education in most business schools,” she says.

“The eruption of corporate scandals is no surprise to me, given the amoral philosophy of business promoted in a lot of business degree programs.”

She says ethics officers can help fill that gap by providing training and advice that some business schools don’t offer. For instance, ethics officers at many corporations have created help lines that employees can call to report and clarify ethical concerns.

However, the role of the ethics officer in a company also depends greatly on how much a corporate CEO or board of directors values ethical integrity.

“Ethics officers can only make a difference if CEOs want them to make a difference,” Von Baeyer says.

“The support of the CEO is crucial. No doubt, in some organizations, the ethics program is primarily window dress. That’s a pity, given the real benefits that can be drawn from it, including increased customer loyalty, product reputation, investor confidence, employee productivity and risk reduction.”

Ponemon agrees that some companies hire ethics officers just to reassure the public, and then bury them in the chain of command.

“Unfortunately, many ethics officers are too low in the corporate hierarchy,” he says. “They don’t have the visibility or power to resolve serious problems.”

The experts agree that, to be effective, the ethics officer should answer directly to the CEO or board of directors.

“The signals sent from the top are those that really matter,” says Swanson. “If the CEO is committed to improving ethics, he or she can elevate the role of ethics officer meaningfully.”

You’ll need training in a number of areas. That includes not just business ethics, but also business law, human resource management and business and society.

Von Baeyer also recommends getting involved in professional activities as soon as possible.

“There are numerous round tables and workshops and conferences on various aspects of ethics in cities across Canada,” he says.

“Such events and the organizations sponsoring them are generally happy to accepts students and beginners and those who simply have an interest in the field.”

Ponemon says a good ethics officer also must have a number of personal qualities that can’t be learned. Obviously, that includes a strong personal moral code. “You must be principled, with the backbone to stand up for what is right, true and fair,” he says.

However, other qualities also are important, including good people skills and a strong commitment to your work. “This is a tough field,” Ponemon says. “To survive, you must be dedicated.”

But even in ideal situations, Von Baeyer stresses that the ethics officer isn’t a cure-all. “It’s obviously impossible for all decisions with an ethical component to be sent off to an ethics officer for resolution,” he says.

“The ethics official can only help employees to think through the ethical issues, remind them of basic corporate values and help defend them if their careful ethical decisions come under fire.”

Ethics Officer Association
A professional association that also provides training

Ethics Resource Center
Lots of resources here


Business Ethics
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Mary Elizabeth Bradford is the Founder and Executive Director of and and a past executive recruiter. A thought leader in the career services industry for over 20 years, she holds 5 distinct advanced certifications for senior-level resume writing, online branding and executive-level job search coaching (CERM, CMRW, CARW, MCD, NCOPE). She has been seen and heard in major media including Forbes, Time, WSJ, Newsweek and NBC affiliate stations. She holds 2 CDI TORI awards and is a top tier judge for the elite CDI TORI awards for four consecutive years. Mary Elizabeth Bradford’s elite team of award-winning, certified, top executive resume writers, former top executive recruiters, and global HR executives help many of the world’s premier C-suite, board members and thought leaders secure the transitions and compensation packages they want. She works with clients all over the globe.

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