The advantage of having a code of ethics is minimal. On one hand, it does not prevent “crooks” (as the book describes them) from violating ethical standards for their own gain. On the other, it forces people who might mistakenly to act within organizationally prescribed limits. Good intentions are more easily furnished into organizational outcomes and managers who might otherwise cannot openly flout its policies. The process of creating a code of ethics also reinforces ethical and cultural norms within an organization, and its content (and changes to it) are indicative of those norms. Despite these benefits, a code of ethics is, at the end of the day, only as effective as the people within the organization are willing to act ethically. It, in itself, does not exert power to coerce ethical behavior.
As an education professional, I selected UC Berkeley’s code of conduct to evaluate. Universities are central institutions within our society. Their behavior touches many stakeholders and, because the system depends on their trust, are held to a high standard of ethical excellence. Their research is expected to provide benefits to wider society and the socialization of their students is foundational to our workforce. Universities are also corporations wherein their employees and wider communities depend for professional and financial success. Lastly, they have become battlegrounds for wider ethical issues in our society. This makes sense. As institutions who study ethics, they are ahead of the wider society in figuring out and applying new ethical norms, in the same way they might push forward fields like biology or physics. They also serve as experiments to see what works in applying those ethical principles, from current hot-button issues such as safe spaces, restrictions on freedom of speech, transgender bathrooms and support for student activism.
It comes as no surprise, then, that UC Berkeley explicitly mandates treating those of different “gender identity” and “sexual orientation” with “respect and dignity” and “prohibits discrimination and harassment and provides equal opportunities.” This toes the line perfectly of being specific enough to describe the particular group of people you are trying to protect, while still being broad enough to cover future situations. It draws a line in the sand about where that organization stands with regards to trans people, and provides explicit organizational support of departments providing things like unisex bathrooms.
Interestingly, also within this “Respect for Others” section is a statement about faculty relationships with active students. At first glance, what does having sex (or a romantic relationship) with a student have to do with respect? Perhaps, it is about respect for all the other students within the institution, wherein there is a presumption of fairness and a lack of quid pro quo benefits and favors. There is also a risk of exploitation of the student by the faculty member for academic benefits, which does not respect the student as student. The grade, fetishized as valuable in itself, becomes less of a reflection on work performed and on the relations between student and teacher. Also under the “respect for others” section is the universities commitment to a drug free workplace, which is nice in writing but anyone who would be inebriated in the workplace would probably not be deterred by its inclusion in the code of conduct. As such, it is probably there to provide a basis for disciplinary action. Lastly, the respect section includes links to other ethically-minded university publications such as the policies on affirmative action and the faculty handbook.
The next two sections are about compliance. They do not list all applicable laws they are subject to as a public entity, enterprise and institution of higher education, but instead make a blanket statement that they are applicable. It also says that employees should, essentially, give a good faith effort to follow the code of conduct, not seeking out loopholes. Like the rest of the code, this section is written clearly and concisely, balancing practicality with singling out only a few specific circumstances. It provides a guide for university values rather than a list of things to not do, and in doing do is more of an ethical guide than a rulebook. Because of this, it is more left up to interpretation. This acknowledges the reality on the ground; ethical decisions are too specific to be covered usefully, but the
The three sections that follow are general university ethical guidelines. They include a section on the requirement to perform ethics-guided research, information custodianship, and conflicts of interest regarding the university and outside commitments. Sections pertaining to “business functioning” –internal controls (directed and appropriate use of funds), university resources and accuracy and clarity of financial reporting documents- are then listed. The code ends with a section on reporting violations and whistleblower protection.
The document has clear advantages. It is specific in who it applies to, and toes the line well in terms of generality and specificity. However, it does have some issues. Firstly, it has not been updated since 2005. UC Berkeley has taken a stance on free speech issues since then that come into conflict with some of the values here. Most specifically, it has showcased speakers who clearly violate its “respect for others” clause. It is unethical to host these speakers? Perhaps, but this code of conduct does not give us a guide. The university has provided a venue for demonstrations and occupy camps. How are we supposed to balance the issue of competing groups fairly and ethically? Are we acting “ethically, honestly and with integrity in all dealings” while we are macing students sitting outside protesting, as happened at UC Davis? Like many codes of conduct, this ethical document is more about pen-stealers than about the larger ethical issues facing a university. There are values that inform the decisions that are made in these circumstances. These values ought to elaborate upon in the code of conduct so that employees have a more informative guide for their actions. Determining these values would be a process wherein the university community could come together. Employees and students would engage in authentic discourse regarding the issues that matter to them, articulating and reinforcing cultural ethical norms. I would do this through town hall meetings. If there is a “university hour” system, I would hold the meetings in those circumstances, trying to bring more students in to articulate how they want their university to respond to issues.
Office of Ethics. (2005). Code of Conduct. Retrieved February 28, 2017, from https://ethics.berkeley.edu/code-conduct
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