Its an interesting question I got via email (and Paul posted two weeks ago). Globally there are a number of aspects of the concepts of ethics that change depending upon where you are. Never that the ethics get looser just that there are regional flavors of ethics that apply.
The reality is that compliance is very much dependent on where you are standing. In the US it can be state by state, as well as within the state by companies. Compliance is the legal adherence to the rules that govern what you can and cannot do. Normally compliance is enforced at the company level first and then at the local level, then state and finally Federal. Outside the US compliance changes rapidly depending not only on the part of the world you are in but also what you are trying to do.
My grandfather always used to say ethics is what you do when no one is looking.
Compliance is what the government tries for in relation to various laws and ordinances.
Ethics can produce a quandary for you. Someone asks you to complete a task that you know isn’t right. The ethical issue at that point is should you. You have to consider the consequences of doing or not doing the task personally.
Compliance is a little more black and white. It’s a set of rules you choose or choose not to follow.
Interestingly Compliance which cannot cover 100% of the situations relies of ethics to guide you when the rules around compliance aren’t clear. For example the reality of social networking changes some of the compliance rules around using social networking during business hours. Its ok for people to have a social account and use one. It is however very important the the information posting rules for your organization are complied with. Since the company cannot enforce (compliance) adherence to the no posting critical information on social media they rely on ethics to enforce that reality. If you do violate that rule they can fire you but sadly it has to be caught and proven first.
Ethics can guide you through a quandary as well. Doing the right things isn’t always easy. When you see someone break the rules o your organization what is your ethical responsiblity? In the end that defines as much about the person as the organization. By rights when you see someone break the compliance rules of your organization you should report them. Nobody wants to be the bad guy but you also don’t want to be included in a lawsuit or government action against your organization for complaisance. IE you knew and didn’t report it.
So the two are very interlocked – Compliance and Ethics. One relies heavily on the other. It is as critical to do the right things regardless as anything.