You may think that business ethics pertains to OTHER people. You learned good ethics at your mother’s knee. Well, what did she tell you about conflicts of interest?

As a former Director, Ethics and Compliance for a $1.5B publicly traded organization, I learned a few important bits of information I would like to share with you.

1. A conflict of interest is when someone puts their own interest above those of the organization they work for. I found this to be the most commonly misunderstood concept in business ethics.

Here is an example: You sometimes buy lunch for your staff. As it turns out, your wife recently invested in a nearby sandwich shop which will deliver lunch. Isn’t it okay to throw your lunch business her way? Well, probably not. But no answer is absolute. It may be that she can bid on delivering lunches just like any other nearby sandwich shop, and she may get the business now and then like her competitors.

But, if she becomes your exclusive provider, thereby enriching your household income, you have just put your interest above that of the company’s. To avoid this situation, just ask yourself, “Will I personally profit from this decision, to the detriment of the company I work for?” If the answer is yes, it is probably best to just avoid the action you are considering.

2. Theft is when you take something that isn’t yours; that is obvious, right? Like taking some money from the company till.

Well, theft — of time — can also be taking time to do personal work on company time. This doesn’t mean making a phone call to arrange a dental appointment, it means picking up your laundry, getting your hair cut, and talking to a friend for a good long chat while being paid by the company. Theft is also taking a handful of pens or notepads home to your kids when school starts in the fall. Both of these examples constitute theft. Not outrageous, but theft all the same.

3. Gifts are a tricky matter. You’ve worked hard to get a contract signed and the vendor is appreciative so he offers you two tickets to the local professional football team game, worth about $350.00. Can you accept the gift?

Check your company’s Code of Ethics or Code of Conduct. There may be a limit or prohibition from accepting (or offering) gifts. Just check to be sure. It may simply be a matter of declaring receipt of the gift, or getting permission to accept it from your boss. It is also possible that you can not accept the gift.

4. Federal Sentencing Guidelines: What the heck are THOSE? The Federal Sentencing Guidelines were issued by the US Sentencing Commission, and encourage actions to help a company avoid fines and penalties for ethical wrongdoing.

Examples of actions to avoid fines and penalties include communicating standards and procedures around ethics and compliance, and requiring participation in related training programs. Your company may have some obligation to adhere to these guidelines or similar ones depending on whether your company is public or private sector. The part that applies to you is that the company should promote a culture of ethical behavior. Your obligation as an employee is to do your level best to behave in an ethical manner.

5. A Code of Ethics sets the tone for company regarding ethical behavior. Many companies have such a document. At the very least, the Securities and Exchange Commission requires a Code for officers of a publicly traded corporation.

If your company has a Code of Ethics (or Conduct), it is probably on your internal web, or may be housed in Human Resources or the Legal Department. Inform yourself about it and plan to live up to it. If you have questions, find out who to ask so you can stay on the right side of ethics.

As a final thought, why wouldn’t you want to be ethical? If you have a good reason for not being ethical, please write and let me know your thoughts.