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Common Misconceptions About Ethics for I-O Psychologists

Li Lin, Chanda Sanders, and Caitlin Porter
SIOP Committee for the Advancement of Professional Ethics (CAPE)

We on CAPE understand that ethics is a tricky subject for many, and even trickier when it comes to ethical decision making. The topic of ethics may bring to mind a goody two-shoes for some or judgments about good and evil for others. Whatever your beliefs about ethics are, we believe that the average person is not walking around looking for opportunities to be unethical, but a misunderstanding about the nature of ethics can snowball a simple choice into an unethical decision. This article outlines nine common misconceptions about ethics that are relevant to our roles as I-O psychology researchers, educators, and practitioners. With this article, we aim to help SIOP members gain a deeper understanding of ethics and provide clarifications that are informative and useful for everyday practice.

#1. Ethics can’t be taught or changed.

Ethical understanding, reasoning, or decision making is not predetermined; rather, it is influenced by our culture, values, and personal experiences. Each time we are confronted with difficult, ethically ambiguous decisions, it is an opportunity to develop empathy and understanding that informs our ethical reasoning. Successful ethics training programs help people understand that every decision is likely to have an ethical dimension and increases the likelihood that ethical components will be recognized in the decision-making process. Although ethics training looks different across fields, in general, ethics training programs yield improvements in ethical awareness and moral reasoning Antes et al., 2009; Mladenovic et al. 2019). People can improve their reasoning skills and decision making through guided exposure and practice (Duckett et al., 1997; Ritter, 2006). In addition to ethics training, ethics compliance programs can also signal an organization’s value and dedication to ethical conduct, and thus, foster a strong ethical culture that aligns people with ethical standards.

#2. I am not an APA member, so the APA Ethics Code isn’t relevant to me.

SIOP represents Division 14 of the American Psychological Association and follows the APA Ethics Code. Therefore, when you become a SIOP member, even if you are not a member of the APA, you agree to abide by the APA principles and code. Moreover, if you are a licensed psychologist, chances are that the jurisdiction under which you are licensed requires adherence to the APA Ethics Code. Finally, the APA Ethics Code is designed to be applicable to all psychologists, even I-Os. Here is a quick access to the Code: https://0-www-apa-org.library.alliant.edu/ethics/code/index

#3. I don’t need to be familiar with the APA Ethics Code to be ethical.

Because many people rely on a personal moral code to make ethical decisions, there may be as many unique perspectives on ethical conduct as there are people in the world. Those moral perspectives may not always align with expectations within the field of I-O psychology or one’s employer. Daily practices for I-O psychologists include activities such as requesting informed consent from research participants, grading student papers, analyzing data, developing tools for practice, or providing coaching or counseling services. I-O psychologists across this diverse field continuously make ethical decisions that affect other people’s lives. Ethical codes communicate a common set of principles, standards, and aspirational goals to all members of a collective, and they offer a sense of direction for navigating ethically ambiguous situations to ensure that a decision serves the best interest of stakeholders and aligns with the ethical principles embraced in the field of I-O psychology.

#4. Ethical codes are only aspirational and idealized.

Although many ethical codes are thought to serve as aspirational guides, this does not mean that ethical conduct is not achievable. Ethical principles and codes are discipline- and/or organization-specific objectives that we should strive to achieve. Depending on the level of detail, ethical codes of conduct direct attention to situations where ethical decision making comes into play and provide a basis for acceptable and unacceptable behaviors for members of an organization and/or profession. Moreover, violation of ethical codes can result in consequences, such as the revocation of licensure or the loss of professional credibility. Although the connections between ethical codes and expected behavior may not be as straightforward as one would wish, it is undeniable that ethical codes inform values, structure, policies, and behavior in organizations.

#5. It’s not my responsibility to report other people’s unethical behavior.

Edmund Burke said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.” Most organizations provide mechanisms (e.g., reporting hotlines) for employees to report ethical misconduct, including financial misconduct, sexual harassment, or unsafe working conditions. Using these mechanisms to report unethical behaviors (i.e., whistleblowing) ensures that people who have engaged in unethical activities are held responsible for their actions. Reporting misconduct is a critical step in not only ensuring integrity and upholding our values as I-O psychologists but also ensuring the ongoing viability of our employing organizations. Indeed, the successful functioning of most organizations depends upon the goodwill and ethical conduct of its members. Similarly, other professions, ranging from medical doctors to construction workers, also have systems to regulate and monitor malpractice and misconduct to ensure that services are provided in an ethical fashion.

Some of the regulatory agencies that are relevant to our role as I-O psychologists were established by the U.S. government, including the Office of Research Integrity, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. APA Ethics Code Standards 1.04 and 1.05 speak to the question of what psychologists should do when they witness what they believe to be unethical behavior. Additional resources can be found on the APA website: https://0-www-apa-org.library.alliant.edu/research/responsible/misconduct

#6. If you are an ethical person, then you are always ethical regardless of the circumstances.

Although people tend to attribute outcomes of an ethical decision to the person who makes the decision (an aspect of the fundamental attribution error), ethical decision making is a product of both the decision-maker and the situation. One reason ethical decision making is so complex is because there are usually multiple stakeholders involved, each with a set of needs that are sometimes compatible and other times conflicting. Balancing conflicting needs can prompt people, even those with well-developed ethical standards, to bend or break their standards when they are in a high-pressure environment.

As evidenced by the infamous Wells Fargo case (Fletcher et al., 2020; Shearman & Sterling, LLC., 2017), the power of culture can lead people to put aside their existing beliefs and conform to the norm. The 2016 Wells Fargo fraud scandal shocked the industry when it was discovered that over 5,600 employees engaged in unethical behavior (creating fake accounts without customer knowledge and forging signatures for accounts where clients blindly paid fees and penalties) due to unrealistic sales goals set by organizational leaders. Fear of job loss created an unethical culture that permeated the organization and led to unethical behavior that cost the organization billions of dollars and shattered its positive reputation. Ethical decision making is determined by internally held standards for ethical conduct as well as the power of an environment or situation. Overlooking the power of the situation oversimplifies the complexity of ethical decision making.    

#7. If something is legal, then it must be ethical; if something is illegal, then it must be unethical.

Legal standards are based on governmental laws and are intended to be applied equally across the people over which a given governmental body has jurisdiction. Ethical standards are based on human principles and moral beliefs that may vary across people and culture, and thus may offer something different from or something in addition to the law. For instance, at one point in time, it was legal in the U.S. to have children working in unsafe working conditions for long hours, even though many people at the time and today consider this practice to be unethical and inhumane. Another example is the “separate but equal” legal doctrine, which allowed state and local governments to have “separate but equal” facilities for White and Black people. Allowing and sometimes requiring segregation by race was common practice in the post-civil war southern United States until it was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Legal doctrine allowing segregation was not considered ethical at the time by many, even though it was legal. It is important to recognize that social and economic movements (e.g., civil rights movements and technological innovation) can develop at a rapid rate, such that regulators, lawmakers, ethics researchers, and even the general public have yet to make sense of what should be considered legal or illegal. Thus, one should not rely solely on legal premises to define or determine ethics, given that one could be ahead of the other.

#8. Successful businesses stay competitive by bending ethical principles.

Businesses are constantly developing new strategies or altering existing strategies to adapt to competitive business environments. However, some strategies are more socially responsible than others. For example, a salesperson may be tempted to provide misleading information about a product to increase sales in the short term, but accurate knowledge of the product and high-quality customer service may be more important for long-term success. Some examples of unethical strategies include corporate espionage, insider trading, price setting, and multilevel marketing schemes.

Well-managed corporations and organizations are aware of the seriousness of ethical business practices. Many organizations have a set of ethical codes or business codes of conduct for which employees are held responsible. Moreover, with the rising awareness of corporate social responsibility, businesses and organizations are seeing the need to incorporate the nature of organization–society relationship (e.g., environmental sustainability and volunteerism) into their strategies and goals. Thus, businesses and organizations don’t need to break their ethical standards to make a profit or stay competitive. Rather, thinking and planning creatively within ethical boundaries and fostering an ethical climate will benefit organizations in the long run.

#9. Dealing with ethical situations is like solving algebra equations. The focus is on finding the “right” answer.

Ethical matters are inherently complex. Unlike an algebraic equation, many ethical dilemmas do not have an unambiguously "right" answer, and not every dilemma is solved satisfactorily. Sometimes the best you can do is the least amount of damage in a situation where at least one person may experience the negative impact of a decision, and that might be the right answer for that situation. As Lefkowitz states, “It may be unreasonable to expect… an entirely satisfactory resolution of every ethical dilemma, but producing increasingly skilled efforts to do so should be the objective” (Lefkowitz, 2017). Thus, the focus is not on finding the “right” answer, but choosing the “best” choice among a set of less than ideal options. When breaking down the components of an ethical situation, you might not find a “right” answer, but as you work through the information hopefully using available decision-making resources, you are more likely to come to the optimal decision for that particular situation.


History has shown us that ethical situations are not always black and white, and sometimes, trade-offs must be made to achieve a necessary outcome. There are times when we are performing our jobs as researchers, professors, or consultants, and find ourselves stuck in a situation where there isn’t really an optimal choice to be made. It is stressful and taxing because we may be uncomfortable with a decision, and yet, we have to act within the best interests of the people we serve. Ethical principles and codes exist, not to tell us what is right or wrong in ethical dilemmas but to act as a guide to bring focus to the consequences that we as decision makers or the stakeholders may experience as a result of a decision and remind us what is really important in any situation.

The APA Principles and Code will help you navigate through what may be a difficult and complex ethical situation. Although there will always be certain behaviors that are clearly unethical, most situations we face are complex and multifaceted. The key is to reframe your thinking about the purpose of the Code as a decision tool. When you do this, you may find it to be much more useful.

Also check out additional resources such as ethical dilemma decks and research articles on the CAPE website.



1. Antes, A. L., Murphy, S. T., Waples, E. P., Mumford, M. D., Brown, R. P., Connelly, S., & Devenport, L. D. (2009). A meta-analysis of ethics instruction effectiveness in the sciences. Ethics & Behavior19(5), 379-402.
2. Duckett, L., Rowan, M., Ryden, M., Krichbaum, K., Miller, M., Wainwright, H., & Savik, K. (1997). Progress in the moral reasoning of baccalaureate nursing students between program entry and exit. Nursing Research46(4), 222-229.
3. Fletcher, K. A., Kanfer, R., & Tatel, C. (2020). Workplace Emotions and Motivation. In L. Q. Yang (Ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Workplace Affect (pp. 52-62). Cambridge University Press.
4. Lefkowitz, J. (2017). Ethics and values in industrial-organizational psychology. Routledge/Taylor & Francis.
5. Mladenovic, R., Martinov-Bennie, N., & Bell, A. (2019). Business students’ insight into their development of ethical decision-making. Journal of Business Ethics, 155, 275-287. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10551-017-3523-5
6. Ritter, B. A. (2006). Can business ethics be trained? A study of the ethical decision-making process in business students. Journal of Business Ethics68(2), 153-164.
7. Shearman & Sterling, LLC. (2017). Independent Directors of the Board of Wells Fargo & Company Sales Practices Investigation Report. New York, New York.

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