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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2011
Industrial/Organizational Undergraduates: Do They Really Need to Know About Ethics?
Tracy E. Zinn, PhD, Whitney F. Smiley, James Madison University (VA)

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 responsibilities.

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 encounters.

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 Principles/principles.pdf

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 and measurement.

Copyright 2011 (Volume 15, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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