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Industrial/Organizational Undergraduates: Do They Really Need to Know About Ethics?
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by Tracy E. Zinn, PhD,
Whitney F. Smiley
- James Madison University (VA)
Categories: Personal and Academic Growth
In the undergraduate curriculum, ethics is a topic that many instructors believe
is vital to the professional development of students. For example, business ethics
is a common course and even has its own scientific journal (Journal of Business
Ethics). However most undergraduate psychology students do not receive training
on how the American Psychological Association’s (APA) ethics code applies to interactions
in business (although, most students are exposed to a unit on ethics in their research
methods course). Here, we discuss (a) the application of the APA ethics code to
the workplace and Industrial/Organizational (I/O) psychology in general, and (b)
ethical issues specific to I/O psychologists and I/O students completing applied
projects or internships.
Applying the APA Principles to the Workplace and I/O Psychology
As psychologists and aspiring psychologists, the APA ethics code guides our professional
behavior (APA, 2010). Five principles to which professionals and students working
in businesses should aspire provide a foundation for the code. In this section,
we briefly discuss each of these principles and how they relate to workplace behavior.
Beneficence and nonmaleficence. In a professional setting, one
should strive to benefit and to cause no harm. Although this seems obvious, one
should always be mindful that the recommendations made to clients or constituents
should have a high probability of improving the organization and the employees in
it. For example, many interventions are fashionable and flashy but have little to
no evidence that they will actually benefit workers or the organization. One should
ensure that interventions have support for their effectiveness before suggesting
or implementing their use, especially if those interventions are costly in terms
of time, money, or jobs. If a psychologist implements a costly intervention that
has little hope of improving the business situation, that would be an ethical concern.
Fidelity and responsibility. As professionals, psychologists acknowledge
their responsibilities not only to the clients with whom they work but to the community
as a whole. Adhering to appropriate obligations and responsibilities is paramount
for any professional. An I/O psychologist working with a business would strive to
maintain cooperative interactions with other professionals, address any conflicts
of interest that may arise, and make sure all parties understand their roles and
Integrity. “Psychologists seek to promote accuracy, honesty, and
truthfulness in the science, teaching, and practice of psychology” (APA, 2010, General
Principles, para. 4). As with any area of life, psychologists strive to uphold integrity
in their professional interactions. Obviously one should not lie, cheat, or steal
when working with an organization. However, this principle goes well beyond those
basics. Professional psychologists should be careful when explaining concepts and
interventions so as to avoid any misrepresentation of facts. I/O psychologists should
also avoid using deception in their interactions unless it is clearly justified,
and should be aware of and attend to the consequences of that deception if they
do employ it. Deception in applied situations may be justified if the psychologist
is collecting data for an IRB-approved project. However, debriefing of employees
is important for any deception situations.
Justice. All psychologists, including I/O psychologists, should
strive for fairness and justice in their professional interactions. The APA ethics
code (2010, General Principles, para. 5) states, “Psychologists exercise reasonable
judgment and take precautions to ensure that their potential biases, the boundaries
of their competence, and the limitations of their expertise do not lead to or condone
unjust practices.” For I/O psychologists this means that we should not agree to
work on a project that is outside of our training and competence. If an intervention
requires expertise that the consulting psychologists believes is outside of their
training, they should recommend another expert.
Respect for rights and dignity. “Psychologists respect the dignity
and worth of all people, and the rights of individuals to privacy, confidentiality,
and self-determination” (APA, 2010, General Principles, para. 6). A common occurrence
for I/O psychologists is to collect information from employees that may be sensitive,
such as job satisfaction or intention to leave the organization. The professional
in question is bound to keep such information confidential, as it could harm the
relationships between employee and employer, or possibly lead to a termination.
Also management or the practicing psychologist must not coerce employees to participate
in data collection.
Ethical Issues for I/O Psychologists and Students
There are two primary ethics documents that guide the professional behavior of I/O
psychologists and students completing applied projects or internships in the field—the
APA (2010) ethics code and the Principles for Validation and Use of Personnel Selection
Procedures (hereafter, the Principles; Society for Industrial and Organizational
Psychology, Inc. [SIOP], 2003). I/O psychologists need to be aware of both documents
and consider different situations where ethical issues will arise in their professional
Below, we discuss some of the relevant APA ethical standards and describe several
of the corresponding ethical issues that I/O psychologists face. In addition, we
explain the purpose and content of the Principles and how it relates to students
in the field.
Resolving ethical issues (e.g., conflict between ethics and organizational demands).
When there is a conflict between an I/O psychologists’ ethics and the requests or
demands of the organization with which they are working, they must be careful to
resolve that conflict in an ethical manner. As mentioned above, it is common for
an I/O psychologist to collect job satisfaction data from employees. Imagine a scenario
where a supervisor asks the psychologist to submit the job satisfaction information
collected from his or her employees. The psychologist is in an ethical dilemma.
Of course, the psychologist needs to remain committed to APA’s ethical guidelines;
however, he or she needs to explain this conflict to the employer, state why the
requested behavior would be unethical, and maintain the ethics code while maintaining
a productive relationship with the employer.
Because students are not as familiar with procedures of organizations as professionals
are, the boundaries of what is ethical or unethical can be less clear. For example,
if the student is conducting research in an organization where informed consent
is not being obtained from participants prior to data collection, the student may
think this is unethical and feel uncomfortable collecting the data. It would be
common for the student to be hesitant to approach a psychologist who has more experience
than they do with this issue. However, when resolving any type of ethical problem,
communication is always best. In applied settings, ethics should be discussed openly
and honestly, therefore resolving this type of issue with an internship supervisor
should be viewed as part of the learning experience. Before the issue is raised,
a student should consult the ethical guidelines so that he or she can resolve the
conflict while adhering to the ethics code and educate colleagues on the code if
they are unfamiliar with it.
Competence (e.g., boundaries of competence). A practicing psychologist
is bound to “provide services, teach, and conduct research with populations and
in areas only within the boundaries of their competence, based on their education,
training, supervised experience, consultation, study, or professional experience”
(APA, 2010, Standard 2: Competence, para. 1). Of course, this seems obvious. However,
the organization that hires an I/O psychologist may not be aware of the particular
expertise of that professional. For example, suppose an I/O psychologist is hired
to construct a new selection system for the organization but is then asked to assist
in mediating a dysfunctional team argument. It is incumbent upon the psychologist
to make it clear that the additional request is outside of his or her competence
or training, if that is the case.
Students in applied settings also frequently encounter competence issues. After
a student has performed well in an organization, managers within that organization
tend to come to the student with additional tasks. Because internships or other
applied experiences are mechanisms for students to learn different aspects of the
field, the student will not be well-versed in a number of topics that arise, nor
should the student be ashamed to let a supervisor know he or she is not competent
in a certain area. When encountered with a situation in which the student is not
comfortable with the current competence level, the student should be upfront and
honest. If the organization is insistent about the student completing the task,
the student should consult the supervisor for guidance. This resolution would increase
the student’s competency and provide a better end product for the organization.
Human relations (e.g., multiple relationships). As a practicing
psychologist, one should refrain “from entering into a multiple relationship if
the multiple relationship could reasonably be expected to impair the psychologist’s
objectivity, competence, or effectiveness in performing his or her functions as
a psychologist, or otherwise risks exploitation or harm to the person with whom
the professional relationship exists” (APA, 2010, Standard 3: Human Relations, para.
6). In an business setting, this might occur if I/O psychologists are asked to evaluate
a new selection procedure for an organization for which they are working in another
context. If psychologists are being paid by the organization for other work, their
objectivity in evaluating a new selection system might be compromised, and the success
of that selection system might be related to keeping their employment.
Not all multiple relationships are unethical. Many psychologists might be asked
to do work for an organization because they know individuals who work there, or
are even related to employees of the organization. It is the responsibility of the
psychologist to evaluate multiple relationships and be cautious of possible conflicts
of interest. If a conflict of interest does arise, it is incumbent upon the psychologists
to remove themselves from that situation.
Students in applied settings may also encounter dual relationships. Most students
hear this term and automatically assume it means a dual professional and romantic
relationship. However as the example above demonstrates, dual relationships include
many more situations than romantic relationships. For example, a student may perform
so well at his or her internship placement that the organization also wants to hire
the student on as a part-time employee. Because the student will be in a learning
role (the internship) and also an employee, this is a dual relationship. When in
doubt about whether or not a situation could possibly be a dual relationship, the
student should question whether the behavior in one role would affect the behavior
in the second role. For example, if the student who was an intern and an employee
did not show up for work one day, her supervisor may evaluate both the employment
performance and the internship performance unfavorably.
Privacy and confidentiality (e.g., discussing the limits of confidentiality).
As mentioned above, it is important that I/O psychologists maintain confidentiality
with any personal information that is necessary or agreed upon by employees. However,
there are limits of confidentiality and it is an ethical responsibility to disclose
these limits to the client and any employees. One of the primary limits of confidentiality
for I/O psychologists involves communication that is transmitted via e-mail or other
electronic sources. Because of the nature of electronic media, these discussions
may be compromised because of Internet security failures. It is important that the
practitioner discuss this issue with the client at the outset of the professional
relationship so that there are no unfortunate surprises. As students, it is important
to follow the policies and rules of the organization with which they are involved.
Most organizations have documents with this information on it easily accessible.
If students are unsure of the organization’s privacy and confidentiality policies,
it is important that they be proactive and seek out this information.
Research and publication (e.g., collecting data in an organization).
Often, I/O psychologists will collect data through the organizations with which
they are working. It is important for the practitioner to be aware of whether institutional
approval is required to conduct that research and, if so, how to go about garnering
that approval. Practitioners must be aware of obtaining informed consent from the
organization as well as from individuals within the organization, and to address
any other possible ethical issues regarding data collection and presentation before
the project is conducted.
Students might also be interested in collecting data during an internship experiences.
For example, students could collect data on the success of an intervention that
they suggests to management. However, before collecting these data, the same warnings
apply: the students must determine if approval by the Institutional Review Board
is needed and then must follow the ethical guidelines for implementing research.
These are only a few of the standards from the APA ethics code that may be applied
to situations involving I/O psychologists and students who are gaining applied experience
in the field. We suggest supervisors formally discuss the APA ethics code with any
student who will be working with an organization. Although most students do not
have direct responsibility, it is still important to address possible issues and
how to handle them.
The Principles is a second document that is fundamental to I/O psychologists’
ethical practice. Now in its 4th edition, the purpose of the Principles
“is to specify established scientific findings and generally accepted professional
practice in the field of personnel selection psychology in the choice, development,
evaluation, and use of personnel selection procedures designed to measure constructs
related to work behavior with a focus on the accuracy of the inferences that underlie
employment decisions” (SIOP, 2003, p. 1). For I/O practitioners, this document provides
information about the best practices for the conduct of selection research and validation
studies, the application of selection procedures, and how to evaluate selection
procedures. For students who are involved in selection or evaluation procedures
in the workplace, this document highlights why certain procedures should be used
by practitioners. Most students would not implement the Principles, per se; however,
it is helpful for students in applied settings, especially those involving selection
and validation, to understand the document and it’s legal and scientific ramifications.
By understanding the Principles, students will be more aware of the way in which
selection decisions are made by professionals in the field. If students are asked
to participate in certain practices, understanding this document can help them better
understand why they are doing so.
For I/O practitioners, ethics is integral to the integrity of interventions. Although
most students will not be in positions where they will make decisions on their own,
ethical dilemmas can certainly arise. It is important for psychologists to emphasize
early in students’ academic endeavors the importance of following our APA code of
ethics. By understanding these principles, students will be better prepared in any
applied area, even if they will not be practicing psychologists. After all, ethics
is universally important.
American Psychological Association (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and
code of conduct. Retrieved from
Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology, Inc. (2003). Principles for
the validation and use of personnel selection procedures (4th ed.). Retrieved from
Tracy E. Zinn, PhD, is currently an associate professor in the
Department of Psychology at James Madison University. She earned her PhD in Industrial/Organizational
Psychology from Auburn University and currently conducts research on effective teaching
practices at the university.
Whitney F. Smiley is currently a master’s student in the Psychological
Sciences program at James Madison University. She currently conducts research on
teaching and training practices at the university as well as on educational assessment
Spring 2011 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 15, No. 3, p. 31), published
by Psi Chi, The International Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright,
2011, Psi Chi, The International Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.