Ethics and Careers

Ethics and CareersIndividual and group behavior is governed in part by ethics, the moral principles or values on which judgments are made as to whether actions are right or wrong, good or bad. The minimum ethical standards in a society are codified in law, but ethical behavior requires going beyond mere adherence to the letter of the law. The ability to engage in commercial and other types of relationships is dependent on trust and general acceptance that standards or codes of behavior will be upheld. Community agreement regarding acceptable and unacceptable behavior enables transactions to take place with some sense of order and predictability.

This article first examines the organizational context in which choices about ethical behavior take place and then discusses sources and career effects of ethical values. The stages in development of moral reasoning are then examined and also the types of ethical issues associated with specific career stages. The special case of organizational whistle-blowers is considered. Finally, the bases for making ethical decisions and opportunities for careers in the field of ethics are discussed.

Organizational Context

In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, a number of highly publicized events concentrated negative attention on ethics in public life and in private and public organizations, such as WorldCom, Enron, Tyco, HealthSouth, and Arthur Andersen. Consequences for individuals held responsible for these legal and ethical failings were career ending in many cases.

A plethora of potential ethical issues faces individuals at all organizational levels: discrimination, sexual harassment, falsifying financial information, insider trading, confidentiality and privacy violations, lying (to managers, colleagues, or customers), stealing, bribery, undercutting coworkers, claiming credit for work done by others, misrepresenting credentials, covering up unsafe working conditions and products—to name just a few types of ethical violations that occur in organizations. Most individuals can expect to face and handle many ethical issues throughout their careers.

As organizational changes accelerate, new situations with uncertain ethical overtones require action: downsizing, outsourcing, employability replacing career ladders, use of contingent workers, technological changes, and the increasingly global nature of competition. These changes impact careers at all organizational levels and present new challenges to those trying to balance their own career development and the needs of the organizations that employ them. The changing nature of workers’ psychological contracts introduces new tensions between individual career considerations and obligations to employers. As job security fades and individuals recognize a lack of commitment from their organizations, they reciprocate with less commitment to their employers. The accepted exchange relationship between employer and employee has eroded, and individuals must now take responsibility for maintaining and updating their skills and managing their careers.

Sources and Career Effects of Ethical Values

Individuals develop ethical standards as a result of socialization in their families, community, religious institutions, and professions. When they join organizations, the contexts in which they work become a powerful determinant of ethical choices. In fact, organizational context is a stronger determinant of ethical behavior than individual moral reasoning ability or espoused ethical standards. Individuals have been shown to use lower levels of ethical reasoning when making decisions in business settings than they do in non-business contexts. Organizational culture, the presence and strength of a code of behavior, role-modeling by managers, the reward system of the organization, and personal career consequences of ethical choices may override the individual’s code of behavior or ability to reason ethically.

Ethics impacts careers in a number of ways. Personal beliefs about work that is valuable to society and consistent with the individuals’ values influence the choice of a career. Decisions to join, stay with, or leave a particular career or organization may be made on the basis of congruence between the individual’s moral beliefs and those enacted by and required of members of the profession or organization.

One criterion for determining whether a profession exists is the presence of a generally accepted code of ethics for those working in the area. Professions thus socialize their members into the behaviors regarded as ethical by their practitioners; however, these professional ethical standards may come into conflict with expectations for employees of particular organizations. For example, certified public accountants must pass an examination on the ethics of accountancy. If their employers request that they falsify accounting records or violate generally accepted accounting practices, the ethics of their profession will be in conflict with the expectations of their employers—and possibly with their own ethical standards.

Development of Ethical Reasoning Ability

Movement through stages of ethical reasoning occurs as individuals mature. At the lowest levels of moral reasoning, preconventional, individuals make choices based on hedonistic consequences for themselves: They do what gives them pleasure or what allows them to avoid punishment or pain. At this level of cognitive moral reasoning, individuals are concerned about the consequences of their actions for themselves. As people mature, their ethical choices are influenced by the standards of the groups to which they belong. Conformity to rules and laws of peer groups govern ethical choices at the conventional level. At the highest level of moral reasoning, postconventional or principled, individuals’ ethical choices are made by reference to principles they have accepted or developed for themselves. Here, the concern is for consequences to society at large, not just to individuals and their reference groups.

Ethical Issues and Career Stages

Different types of ethical dilemmas are faced by individuals at different career stages. Using Donald Super’s career development framework, researchers have found different types of ethical issues faced by those in the exploration, establishment, maintenance, and disengagement stages of their careers.

In the aptly named exploration career stage, individuals focus on acceptance from peers and also may be most vulnerable to pressure from superiors. If achieving performance norms is critical to peer acceptance, this need for acceptance by peers can lead to ethical shortcuts. If the organization rewards goal achievement, the individual in this early career stage may feel pressured to achieve those goals using any means, ethical or unethical. The potential for ethical shortcuts is increased if superiors themselves do not model ethical behavior.

When individuals enter the establishment stage, they have made some commitment to a particular profession or career and are increasingly concerned with career advancement. High levels of competition may result in individual ethical compromises to achieve promotion. In individuals with high success drives, this temptation may be intensified. In the establishment stage, the pressure to take ethical shortcuts may be mostly internal, in contrast to the exploration stage, in which pressure comes from peers and superiors.

During the maintenance and disengagement stages, both external and internal pressures to violate personal ethical standards in pursuit of organizational goals can be expected to lessen. With established track records, decreased competition, and more personal acceptance of one’s achievement levels, both internal and external pressures for unethical behavior can be expected to decrease. In addition, as individuals become more focused on their work legacies, they may gain more incentive to help others achieve their life and career potential and also further integrate their own careers into their whole life systems. On the other hand, individuals in the maintenance stage are expected to be at the top of their careers, often in positions that may lead to temptations to encourage subordinates to use ethically questionable means to achieve organizational goals. Furthermore, individuals who have reached upper-management positions may face external pressure from stockholders as well as from their boards of directors to do whatever it takes to increase share price.

Thus, the nature of the pressure to behave unethically, the types of ethical issues faced, and the motivation for ethical/unethical behavior can be expected to vary over the course of a career, but no career stage immunizes individuals from the necessity of handling ethical issues.


In extreme cases, individuals may choose to become whistle-blowers, even though the consequences of such actions are almost always detrimental to the individual’s career. Whistle-blowers speak out about illegal or unethical behavior in organizations. They may blow the whistle internally or, after exhausting internal reporting systems, publicly report organizational wrongdoing. At the other extreme, individuals who remain in positions or organizations that require some violation of their personal ethical standards may disconnect their emotions from the work situation and therefore reduce commitment to the organization and fail to engage in organizational citizenship behaviors. Perceptions of ethical culture are strongly related to both job satisfaction and organizational commitment and thus to organizational citizenship behaviors.

Issues differ in their levels of moral intensity. Moral intensity is higher—and whistle-blowing is more appropriate—when consequences are greater, when there is general social consensus that an action is wrong, when it is highly likely that the harmful consequence will actually occur, when the event is imminent and proximate to the individual, and when the effect is concentrated rather than diffuse. Enron whistle-blowers Sherron Watkins and Maureen Castaneda felt the legal and ethical violations at Enron justified their going public with the company’s lapses. In another case, the Challenger disaster might have been avoided had the engineer, Alan McDonald, who disagreed with the judgment regarding the safety of the O-rings, taken his concerns outside NASA.

Being a whistle-blower frequently carries heavy career consequences. Most whistle-blowers lose their jobs as a result of their reporting legal or ethical violations. They may also be unable to find employment in their professions after the event. Most suffer financial and/or personal reverses as they pursue cases, which frequently drag on over a number of years. Nonetheless, whistle-blowers feel a moral imperative to expose organizational actions that endanger others, even at the cost of their own careers.

Integrity, honesty, and a strong work ethic are high on employers’ lists of traits and skills they seek in employees. However, many employees fail to see a positive relationship between ethical behavior and career advancement. In fact, they believe they must choose between adhering to their personal ethical standards and their own career progressions. Concerns for organizational profit and/or survival often trump individual concerns about honorable behavior. Ethicists thus recommend that early in their careers, individuals make decisions about the lines they will not cross. If these decisions are not consciously taken when there is time for thoughtful consideration, individuals may find themselves unwittingly compromising their integrity as they respond to the organizational pressures of the moment.

Bases for Making Ethical Decisions

Philosophers have suggested prescriptive approaches to ethical thinking. The utilitarian approach judges whether an action is ethical by examining its likely consequences. Among the alternatives available, the ethical choice is the one that creates the greatest good or the least harm for the greatest number of people. This approach, with its roots in economics, is embraced by the majority of businesspeople and by many in other fields. Using utilitarian reasoning, for example, management fires some workers in an attempt to improve profits, attract investors, and retain other jobs, or they close a plant in one town because its inefficiencies have a negative impact on profits of more efficient plants in the same organization. Utilitarianism works well for those in the majority, but minorities do not fare well under this philosophical approach to making ethical decisions. That many others benefited from the decision may offer small comfort to those who lost their jobs or to the town whose economy was decimated when the plant closed. In addition, the likely consequences of all alternatives cannot be known with certainty. Information about some consequences or even about some groups or individuals who will be affected by the decision may be unavailable.

A second approach to ethical decision making is the rights approach. A decision is considered ethical if it avoids violating the basic human rights of any stakeholders affected by the decision. Difficulties with this approach include the impossibility of getting universal agreement on what basic human rights are. To some, these rights include the right to a livable wage or health care; others recognize fundamental rights to life and freedom, but to little else. Furthermore, rights can conflict, and there are no clear rules for determining which rights take precedence in a particular case.

In the justice approach to making ethical choices, decisions are considered ethical if the same procedures apply to all who are affected by the decision (procedural justice) or if those who are similarly placed receive similar outcomes (distributive justice). Thus, those with similar professional qualifications, workloads, and performance levels should receive similar compensation; those with lesser credentials, workloads, and performance levels should be compensated less than those in the first group, but all members of the same performance class should receive similar outcomes.

The virtue approach focuses on the integrity of the decision maker or moral actor. Intentions and motives as well as actions themselves are considered in judging whether or not an action is ethical. This approach relies on community standards of behavior. In professions, these standards are encapsulated in codes of behavior accepted by practitioners in the field.

Organizational Careers in Ethics

Career opportunities in the field of ethics are increasing. Growth in the demand for ethics officers in corporations is partially a response to changes adopted in 1991 by the U.S. Sentencing Commission. The sentencing guidelines reduce penalties for corporations found guilty of violations if they can demonstrate that they have comprehensive ethics programs in place. Having a high-level executive with direct responsibility for ethical behavior in the organization is a strong signal that companies take ethics seriously. More recently, the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 has rein­forced the pressure for compliance officers who are held responsible not only for ensuring compliance to ethics laws but also for the development of an organizational climate and culture that support ethical behavior.

The responsibility for compliance with employment laws, ensuring nondiscrimination in hiring and treatment of employees, and setting programs in place to prevent sexual harassment is generally housed in human resource management departments. Thus, careers in human resource management also require a thorough grounding in law and ethics.

Ultimate responsibility for ethical behavior in organizations, however, still rests with individual employees. Company titles that include the word ethics may be limited, but the necessity of considering the ethical implications of organizational decisions permeates the entire organization and affects careers at all levels.

See also:


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