QAre compliance and ethics really that different?

A: I would argue that compliance and ethics are unique disciplines; however, because both are designed to manage human behavior, it is easy to see why the two are so often conjoined.

First, many organizations “house” their ethics departments under the larger compliance umbrella. Companies do this for a number of logical reasons, including fiscal efficiency and employee shared competence. Thus, organizations developed socially constructed departments such as the Office of Compliance and Ethics as well as formal titles such as chief compliance and ethics officer. Second, natural intersection points for compliance and ethics can be found within an organization’s vision statement, code of conduct and other company policies.

And, while there is an affiliation between compliance and ethics, they are different. Let me illustrate this difference through a brief story.

I recently had the privilege of speaking to a group of professionals as part of an ethics panel sponsored by their international association. (Context: Most audience members were sole proprietors of their own service business.) After a combination of ethics and compliance-type questions, one participant asked if she should add a duty-to-disclose clause to her contracts, recognizing it could potentially conflict with confidentiality values stated in the association’s code of conduct. I responded by sharing that whether or not you add a duty-to-disclose clause in your contracts is wholly up to you as a business owner, and how you plan to strategically manage your business liabilities. However, if you go to bed at night with an enduring feeling that you should have disclosed information to reasonably prevent harm to your client or another, it does not matter whether you are compliant with the duty-to-disclose clause, it matters that you did what was right to prevent someone from serious harm. That is the difference between compliance and ethics. Following a duty to disclose policy because you are supposed to is compliance. Disclosing because you feel like it is the right decision in terms of your values is ethics. Compliance governs what is legally wrong. Ethics governs what is morally wrong.

Nicole Zwieg Daly is the director of Center for Ethics in Practice at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.

This article originally appeared in the Star Tribune. Used by kind permission of the Star Tribune.