Business Ethics Relating to Knowledge and Skills

It is not uncommon for corporate companies to admit that its employees are among its most valuable assets, especially if those employees have sought-after skills. While recognizing this important fact, it is virtually impossible to put an actual monetary value on these assets, which usually go way beyond their monthly remuneration. Business ethics enter an almost intangible realm when dealing in concepts such as knowledge and skills. For example, when an employee comes up with an idea that proves to be of value to the company he/she works for it can become a matter of debate as to who has the right to the idea – the employee, or the company who trained the employee. Generally, these issues would be clearly set out in the employee’s initial letter of appointment, especially in a Research & Development scenario, thereby avoiding any ambiguity in the future.

To overcome the problem of “employee raiding”, also known as “head-hunting”, where key employees are enticed to work for a competitor, taking valuable information and skills along with them, companies often include a clause in the employee’s letter of appointment whereby they agree not to work for, or start up, a competitive business for a stated period after leaving the company. These “non-compete” clauses walk a fine line between the employees’ right of freedom to choose an employer, and an employer taking steps to protect trade secrets, marketing plans, client lists and other information the employee may have been privy to. While the extent to which non-compete clauses can be enforced varies from state to state, they are generally legally binding if there is a reasonable limit on the time period and geographic area restriction.

Another aspect of business ethics relating to knowledge and skills, is that of industrial or corporate espionage – a problem which is more prevalent than one would think. This theft of knowledge, trade secrets or management techniques, can make the difference between success or failure, particularly in highly competitive fields that rely heavily on information. All manner of espionage techniques come into play when competitors decide to go this, most unethical, route to gain the upper hand.

Biopiracy and bioprospecting are relatively new terms in the world of business ethics, and refer to a situation where corporations from the so-called developed world, exploit natural resources of developing countries. Although it has been recognized that this field needs regulating, resulting in legally binding contracts outlining benefit sharing and royalties, it remains a matter of debate as to whether the developing nations are getting a fair deal. Ethical investors may want to investigate a little further when investing in companies sourcing their raw materials from developing countries.