Combining law and ethics to give exemplary conduct


Derek Smith

While legality and ethics intersect frequently in the business world, they can also diverge in critical ways that shape a company’s foundation and future. Legality to compliance with laws and regulations, while ethics pertains to moral principles that govern behaviour. For companies looking to succeed while maintaining their integrity, understanding both is vital.

This article will highlight the importance of making legal and ethical decisions, while identifying that these critical elements of business sometimes diverge.

The foundation of legal compliance

Companies need to ensure their operations, strategies and interactions comply with local, national and international laws. Compliance with these standards is non-negotiable, serving as the benchmark for upstanding corporate behaviour. Legal standards protect companies, employees, consumers and communities from harm; ensure fair competition; safeguard intellectual property; and prevent corruption and fraud. When a company fails to meet these legal standards, it can be fined, penalised and have its reputation tarnished - the effects of which can sometimes be irreversible.

A company’s legal compliance programmes are designed to navigate the complex web of applicable laws and regulations. As a result, companies are both protected from the consequences of legal infractions and operate within government and regulatory frameworks. However, legal compliance - while imperative - represents the minimum standard for corporate conduct. It is here that ethics becomes pivotal.

Beyond legality: The ethical imperative

In ethics, the concept of right and wrong transcends what is written in law. It refers to a set of moral principles governing a company’s decisions and acts. Honesty, integrity, fairness and respect for others are ethical considerations. In contrast to legal standards, ethical principles are enforced by public opinion and the internal compass of the firm rather than by legal sanctions.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of ethics in business. It builds trust with consumers, employees and partners. A company’s reputation is enhanced by trust, which fosters loyalty and encourages both repeat business and repeat customers. Sustainable success can be achieved through ethical corporate practices, as well as by attracting investors and employees who seek more than just financial rewards. In addition to aligning with their own moral values, they seek companies that contribute to society positively.

The divergence and convergence of ethics and legality

Although legality and ethics differ, they are not mutually exclusive. It is possible for legal requirements to converge with ethical considerations in certain situations. For example, legislation related to environmental protection, labour rights and anti-discrimination reflects societal ethical standards. In these areas, legal compliance also fulfills certain ethical obligations.

However, legally correct actions are not always ethically correct. There are cases where the law permits actions that are ethically questionable. Tax loopholes, for example, may be legal but not necessarily ethical.

Navigating the complex landscape

To navigate the complex landscape of ethics and legality, companies must create a culture that values ethical behaviour as much as legal compliance. Leadership must set the tone by demonstrating a commitment to ethical principles in their decision-making and behaviour. Additionally, employers should implement an ethics programme that goes beyond compliance training to address moral dilemmas and ethical decision-making frameworks, and foster an environment where employees feel empowered to speak out.


The importance of both ethics and legality in business cannot be overstated. While adhering to legal standards supports operational legitimacy and prevents sanctions, ethical behaviour fosters trust, loyalty and sustainable success. Companies that recognise and embrace the intersection of ethics and legality have the potential to become industry leaders, as well as leaders in broader societal landscapes.

Derek Smith Junior has been a governance, risk and compliance professional for more than 20 years. He is the author of ‘The Compliance Blueprint’. Mr Smith is a certified anti-money laundering specialist (CAMS) and the assistant vice-president, compliance and money laundering reporting officer for CG Atlantic’s family of companies (member of Coralisle Group Ltd) for The Bahamas, St Vincent & The Grenadines, St Lucia and Curaçao.


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