Once a group or company determines what its value or ethical system is, it must create a way of expressing that through actions or sets of laws that it will follow. In business, this creation of a way of doing things is called applied ethics. It is the application of the ethical system to the practice of doing business.
There are many ways in which the business uses applied ethics. After defining what is moral or sacrosanct to a company, it can create codes it wants employees to follow, defining how people should behave to each other and which behaviors are or are not tolerated.
Since a business also lives by its public reputation, its sense of what is right or wrong governs the actions it will take in the world. For instance, a business that feels environmental protection is important will find ways to procure materials that are in keeping with that ethical stance. The company may even find “green” ways of operating its buildings. Overall, it could look for means to reduce consumption of fossil fuels or precious resources that cannot be easily replaced.
With the above example, it’s easy to see how quickly failure to use applied ethics may be criticized in the world, lowering the company’s reputation. If the company claims one of its values is environmental protection and then makes no effort to create changes supporting this view, its commitment to the ethic is questionable. Under these circumstances, claiming an ethic that isn’t supported by behavior is likely to make the company look foolish.
There exist lots of examples of how a moral code gets turned into practical behavior, and a business may have a number of ways to create an applied ethics set. Sometimes companies contract with advisors in business ethics or standard ethics to get help on how to translate values into practiced values. For example, an advisor could be called in to help create practical proof of a company’s value for its employees. A number of features might be instituted in the workplace that can make it fun to go to work and that are supportive, such as building gyms, cafeterias, and employee recreation areas.
One difficulty with applied ethics is that it can be quite easy to not fully commit to an ethic, setting up dichotomies that at once show the ethic in practice and also show the business contradicting it. The company that values employees and builds nice features for them contradicts itself if it pays employees far less than market value. A business committed to green behavior may not be as convincing if all upper level managers drive home from work each day in gas-guzzling vehicles. Any ethical advisor or each individual company must look at how to consistently apply ethics, so that appearance of contradiction is not created, which, again, damages reputation.