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A -niform Code of Ethics: Business and IT Professional Ethics

Business and IT professionals have enough in common that they can share a universal code of ethics.
  1. Introduction
  2. Defining Morality
  3. Business Ethics: Traditional Theories
  4. IT Ethics
  5. Conclusion
  6. References
  7. Authors
  8. Tables

The last 20 years have seen a tremendous technology infusion into business, education, and society. Virtually all elements of society have been transformed by the use of technology. This change is important from an ethical perspective in terms of who IT workers are today and what their tasks are. In the 1980s, IT workers were mainly limited to technical fields such as programming, data processing, server administration, and phone services. Today, IT workers are integrated into every department, function globally, and have access to a wealth of knowledge and information.

Given the ubiquitous role of the IT professional, it is unfortunate that a comprehensive code of ethics does not yet exist. IT professionals, like those in all walks of life, should behave ethically. In this article we discuss basic principles found in both business and IT ethics, and we present a single code of ethics that applies to both arenas.

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Defining Morality

Values can be defined as the views expressed as statements describing objects or features of objects that have worth [11], and can be viewed in terms of being desirable in either a social or personal context [5]. Values shed light on what one thinks is right or wrong. Values help decision makers determine what is important or worthy and are influenced by one’s membership in a community or culture. If business and IT professionals derive their values from the same community or culture in which they are socialized, it follows that their basic approach to what is valuable or desirable would also be similar, if not the same. From this, it can be further surmised that their professional codes of ethics would value the same or similar ethical principles.

Carroll [3] defines ethics as the concept of what is right and fair conduct or behavior. The ability and desire to make moral or ethical judgments implies that the decision maker is concerned with the “spirit of the law,” rather than just the “letter of the law.” As defined by De George [4], business ethics are the interaction of ethics and business. Business ethics is a field of “special” ethics, that is, the review of the ethical practices of a very specific field of study, like medical ethics, engineering ethics, or IT ethics. Velasquez [11] states that business ethics is a study of moral right and wrong, concentrating on moral standards as applied to business practices.

Various authors in the area of IT ethics have presented similar definitions of professional ethics. Ethics has been described by IT ethicists as a rational system designed to determine right and wrong in specific contexts; it has also been defined as the freely made choices of informed and rational people who accept accountability and liability for their actions [2, 7]. These IT professionals writing on ethics have assessed the concept of ethics in similar terms to those used by well-known business ethicists like De George [4] and Velasquez [11].

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Business Ethics: Traditional Theories

We used two frameworks as a foundation to support the premise that business and IT ethics are similar enough to be used to develop a uniform code of ethics for both business and IT professionals. The Kantian analysis [6] and the analysis formulated by Raiborn and Payne [10] present the necessary principles to make this determination. The Kantian analysis was chosen as one benchmark framework because it is widely known among ethicists, both philosophers and business ethicists alike. It was also chosen because it represents the deontological rule that one should do unto others as others do unto one, a key idea integrated into all the codes of ethics presented here. The Raiborn and Payne analysis was chosen for this article because it represents a more modern, particularly “business ethics” approach to making moral decisions; it was developed by an accountant and an attorney specifically to address current ethical dilemmas in business.

The Kantian analysis can be reduced to three simple questions. If the answer to all three questions is yes, a moral duty to act or not to act is imposed. First, the action should be universally consistent. This first test of the Kantian analysis requires that the actor treat everyone the same; it also requires that the actor would find such treatment acceptable if visited upon himself. The second prong of this three-part test requires that the action to be undertaken must respect individuals as inherently or innately valuable. This prong of the test recognizes that the person acted upon is due respect by virtue of his existence as a human member of society. Finally, the autonomy of all persons is deserving of respect; that is, their freedom to make voluntary and informed choices must be recognized. In short, Payne and Landry [9] argue that Kantian ethics can be reduced to something approximating the well-known “Golden Rule.”

Raiborn and Payne [10] proposed a code of ethics that considers certain ethical values deemed important to society, and identified integrity, justice, competence, and utility as important values.

Integrity incorporates the values of sincerity, honesty, and candor into the decision-making process. Equality and fairness are inherent qualities of a just system of decision making. Ability is the central principle of the value of competence, adherence to which helps workers maintain state-of-the-art knowledge in their fields. Lastly, utility requires that the decision maker will “actively seek information on the impact its decisions will have on all parties and it will weigh this information equally.” [10]

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IT Ethics

Codes of ethics have been developed by several IT professional societies in recent years. Four such codes are examined by Oz [8]; this work builds upon Oz’s examination of these codes. Using Oz’s work and using the basic concepts of the Kantian analysis [6] and the Raiborn and Payne [10], we generated a potential uniform code of ethics for IT professionals. The four codes reviewed by Oz were formulated to attempt to impose some system of guidance to the IT professional who has encountered an ethical dilemma. Oz compared and contrasted these codes, which include the codes of the Institute for Certification of IT Professionals (ICCP), the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), the Association of Information Technology Professionals (formerly the Data Processing Management Association (DPMA)), and the Information Technology Association of America (ITAA).

The ICCP code of ethics involves a code of conduct and a code of good practice, both of which are designed to help strengthen the profession’s status as an ethical profession. There are four basic principles set out in the ICCP code of ethics. First, the IT professional will embrace a high standard of skill and knowledge. Secondly, the IT professional must maintain a confidential relationship with people served. Additionally, the IT professional should recognize that there is public reliance upon the standards of conduct and established practice that he or she uses. Finally, the IT professional must observe the ethical code.

The ACM code of ethics contains five basic canons [8]. First, ACM members should act with integrity. They should also strive to increase their competence and the competence and prestige of the profession. Third, ACM members should accept only those assignments for which there is reasonable expectation of achieving the requirements or specification of the project. An additional element of this edict is that the ACM IT professional should perform his or her assignments in a professional manner. Closely related to the third canon is the fourth, which requires that the ACM IT professional act with professional responsibility. Finally, the IT professional should use his or her specialized knowledge and skills for the advancement of human welfare.

The AITP Code of Ethics is based upon six obligations to specific stakeholders to which IT professionals are bound [1]. The obligation to management is to promote management’s understanding of information processing methods and procedures. The obligation to fellow members of the AITP involves upholding the high ideals of the AITP, cooperating with fellow members, and treating them with honesty and respect. AITP members’ obligation to society is to participate to the best of their abilities in the dissemination of knowledge pertaining to the general development and understanding of information processing. They must refrain from using knowledge of a confidential nature to further their own interests, and they must not to violate private or confidential information they gain access to or are entrusted with. The obligation owed to one’s educational institution is that of upholding the institution’s ethical and moral principles. The fifth obligation, owed to the employer of the AITP member, is for the member to endeavor to fulfill this fiduciary relationship to the best of his or her ability, to guard the employer’s interests and to advise the employer wisely and honestly. Finally, the AITP members must respect their country and the chosen way of life of their country and act accordingly.

If business and IT professionals derive their values from the same community or culture in which they are socialized, it follows that their basic approach to what is valuable or desirable would also be similar, if not the same.

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Table 1.

Business and IT professionals clearly share the same fundamental values. Table 2 is a tabular representation of the substantive elements of each code of business ethics and IT ethics. It presents evidence of the similarities between the codes sufficient to merit a development of one universal code of ethics for implementation by IT professionals or anyone faced with an ambiguous ethical dilemma.

The seven values or key concepts comprising any code of ethics are: consistency, respect for individuals, autonomy for all, integrity, justice, utility, and competence. Of these seven, three groups of like principles emerged. First, consistency, respect for individuals and autonomy were grouped. These principles were found to be similar in that they represent a form of the “Golden Rule” as delineated by Kant [6]. Second, the principles of integrity and justice were grouped, as reflecting basic principles of good faith, sincerity and fairness, as proposed by Raiborn and Payne [10]. Finally, utility and competence were grouped: they fit together well from a standpoint of pragmatism, since social utility is served by competence. After consolidating these principles, the principles promulgated by the various IT professional societies were aligned. The final column of Table 3 represents the uniform codal provisions that would not only serve the purposes of general codes of business ethics, but also pursue ideals held by IT professionals. Thus, a fit has been established between the codes of business ethics and the codes of several IT professional organizations.

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T1 Table 1. A comparison of IT professionals’ codes of ethics [

T2 Table 2. A synthesis of frameworks of ethical concepts [

T3 Table 3. A uniform code of ethics for business and IT professionals.

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    1. AITP. About AITP: Code of Ethics, retrieved Jan. 20, 2004;

    2. Berdichevsky, D. and Neunschwander, E. Toward an ethics of persuasive technology. Commun. ACM 42, 5 (May 1999), 51–59.

    3. Carroll, A.B. A three-dimensional conceptual model of corporate performance. Academy of Management Review 4, 4 (1991), 497–505.

    4. De George, R.T. Business Ethics. Simon & Schuster, Upper Saddle River, N.J., 1999.

    5. Joyner, B.E. and Payne, D. Evolution and implementation: a study of values, business ethics and corporate social responsibility. Journal of Business Ethics 41 (2002), 297–311.

    6. Kant, I. Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals. In R.P. Wolff, Ed., Bobbs-Merrill Co, Indianapolis, IN, 1969.

    7. Laudon, K.C. Ethical concepts and information technology. Commun. ACM 38, 12 (Dec. 1995), 33–40.

    8. Oz, E. Ethical standards for computer professionals: a comparative analysis of four major codes. Journal of Business Ethics 12 (1993), 709–727.

    9. Payne, D. and Landry, B.J.L. Similarities in business and IT professional ethics: The need for and development of a comprehensive code of ethics. Journal of Business Ethics 62, 1 (2005), 73–85.

    10. Raiborn, C.A. and Payne, D. Corporate codes of conduct: a collective conscience and continuum. Journal of Business Ethics 9 (1990), 879–889.

    11. Velasquez, M.G. Business Ethics: Cases and Concepts. Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1999.

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