U05: How Can a Personal Ethical Climate and Code Effect Decision Making?

Some of the most challenging ethical issues are the subtle infringements in the “grey area” of right and wrong.  Issues like embezzlement, copyright and patent theft, withholding pertinent information and providing errant advice are often easy cases to discern without a lot of analysis.  But how do we perceive completely socially-acceptable opportunities that run across the grain of our personal values and views?  How do we act when something that we strongly desire, which is ethically, morally, and professionally right in every way does not align with a fundamental element of who we claim to be?  These are the tough calls.


A recent event, (along with the theories taught in this class) prompted some thought around what does my “personal ethical climate” look like and how might it affect the decisions I make?  Using Victor and Cullen’s ethical climate table below, I can see an interesting pattern in ethical criteria across the levels of locus.  The closer the locus is to me personally, the more principled I tend to be.  As the locus moves away from me, I lean more toward benevolence and egoism.  In short, I tend to hold myself to a higher standard than I hold others, I want the best outcome for the team I work and socialize with, but I do so through the lens of efficiency.


Ethical Climates
Adapted from Victor and Cullen (1988)




Self-interest Company profit


Benevolence Friendship Team interest

Social responsibility

Principle Personal morality Company rules and procedures

Laws and professional codes

(PSY_533, 2018c)

I’ll admit, (risking a bit of transparency) I have a penchant for an Individual Locus and Ethical Egoism.  This dimension was much more prominent in my teens and 20’s and has subsided over time.  But I do see this unhelpful filter pop up in decision-making when the outcome may have a significant personal impact.  One way to overcome these unhelpful thoughts is to have a personal standard that encourages a more helpful personal ethical climate as shown in the following example.


Recently I was offered the leadership position I have been working toward for 20 years.  It was the perfect opportunity to make a significant difference for those I would lead and for myself professionally.  It had an ideal location with the beauty of nature and history all around.  The benefits were endless.  A few years of successful results in this role, and senior executive leadership would be a real possibility.  It was all I could dream of professionally, and the “self-interested” element of my personal ethical climate wanted all these benefits.  But, I have another lens to look through.  How does this decision affect the things I cherish most in life?


Personal Ethics Standard:

In our company, we are encouraged to identify what we call our personal “Big 5” or PB5 (PROPULO, 2018).  These are the things that are most important in our lives.  From a safety standpoint, we are encouraged to see our PB5 as the things we want to stay safe and healthy for.  Psychologically, if we have a reason to stay safe and healthy, we will make different decisions in our daily lives.  We will wear our seatbelts, make better food choices, have an exercise routine, etc.  As an extension of this, we can look at other decisions in life as well, such as buying a new house or car, or whether a new role is the right thing to take on.


My Personal Big 5 are: (in priority order)

  • Relationship with Spouse
  • Development of Family
  • Ability to Serve
  • Development of Intellect
  • Legacy


This is the standard for decisions in my life and aligns more to a more balanced personal ethical climate.  Having a standard allows us to compare potential consequences of decisions we make.  If a decision has positive or negligible effect on these standards, it may be the right thing to do.  However, if a decision negatively affects (or could negatively affect) any one of these elements, it must be questioned.


Applied Ethics Codes:

Let’s look at this through an ethics lens.  The American Psychological Association (2018) has set the standard for appropriate decision making and action within the profession of psychology, the APA Code of Ethics (2017).  The Canadian Psychological Association, Australian Psychological Association, and many others have similar codes (CPA, 2018) (APS, 2016).  Additionally, many companies and organizations adhere to an ethics standard or code of conduct.  These are the guidelines by which each organization determines right or wrong and are often referenced during termination procedures.


If companies and organizations use a formal documented code to help make decisions, would this practice not also be applicable for us as individuals? Viewing this “perfect opportunity” through the lens of my PB5, it then looks something like this.



Probable Affect

Relationship with Spouse



Development of Family



Ability to Serve



Development of Intellect







Based on the priority of my “personal ethics standard”, the decision becomes clear.  Although the “perfect opportunity” is good for me, it is not good for the dimensions of life I hold most dear.


If we were to compare the APA Ethics Code to this situation, we would see breaches in the APA Principles of Beneficence and Nonmaleficence as well as Fidelity and Responsibility (APA Code, 2017).  It would show up in at least codes 1.03 – Conflicts Between Ethics and Organizational Demands as well as 3.04 – Avoiding Harm (APA Code, 2017).


Of course, standing at the bus stop watching the ideal opportunity drive off into the sunset is disheartening.  But knowing the decision was made using a code of personal ethics (aligned with a desire personal ethical climate) eases the sleeplessness.  And one thing I have learned in life is that we don’t know what is on the next bus coming around the corner…


Works Cited

(2018). Retrieved from American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/

APA Code. (2017, January 1). Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Retrieved from American Psychological Association: http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/index.aspx

APS. (2016, September). Ethics and Practice Standards. Retrieved from Australian Psychological Society: https://www.psychology.org.au/About-Us/What-we-do/ethics-and-practice-standards

CPA. (2018, April 14). Ethics/Deontology. Retrieved from Canadian Psychological Association: https://www.cpa.ca/aboutcpa/committees/ethics/

PROPULO. (2018, April 14). Understanding ZIP in Your Organization. Retrieved from Propulo.com: http://www.propulo.com/downloads/understanding_ZIP/files/Understanding_ZIP_in_your_Organization_americas.pdf

PSY_533. (2018c, April 1). L13 Victor and Cullen’s 2917 Definition. Retrieved from [18SP] PSY 533, Sec 001: Ethics and Ldrshp: https://psu.instructure.com/courses/1896721/pages/l13-victor-and-cullens-1987-definition?module_item_id=23792072


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