By Katherine E. Roberts

Guiding Principles
After researching the topic of ethics, it became clear that my assumptions that everyone knew, or should know, what is good or bad could not have been more wrong. For performance improvement professionals, several organizations have codes of ethics, principles, or guidelines to act as a “code of honor.” The intent of these codes is not to be an all-encompassing manual to address every ethical issue (Chyung, Winiecki, & Downing, 2010) or to devote every code to memory, but to provide guidelines on how performance improvement professionals should conduct themselves within the industry. Despite the judicious care and, in some cases, prodigious detail in the creation of these codes, they fall short in providing answers to the inevitable ethical dilemmas that befall a professional from time to time.

Personal Morals: The Foundation
When the codes fail to provide guidance, or render conflicting information, it is our personal morals and values that should determine our ethical choices (Burns et al.; Lee, 2003, as cited in Chyung et al., 2010). The individual person is the ethical filter of “good” or “bad” interpretations, arriving at conclusions through a perspective guided by life experiences and education in a professional code of ethics (Chyung et al., 2010). The importance of the individual is unmistakable; for this reason, professionals should formulate their own personal professional guiding principles. I discuss three principles that I personally adopted as my own.

Power of differences. Respect the differences of others. While I may not agree or understand, I must arrive at conclusions or act within the boundaries of mutual respect, agreement of mutual differences, and compromise when able.

By respecting individual differences, I gain alternate perspectives and viewpoints that contribute to formulating a strategic, holistic, and systemic plan that is likely to have more support or buy-in from the group.

The trickle effect guideline. When evaluating the potential systemic implications of decisions, I should:

  • Clearly identify the scope of “who” or “what” I will affect
  • Seek to comprehend if my decisions add value from the source downward
  • Evaluate the true worthiness of my decision based on the potential outcomes, the effects it will cause, and who it will affect

By following this reasoning, I can uncover effects to the system that may be unethical or not worthy once fully evaluated. This allows me to make changes, formulate alternative interventions, and plan strategic processes before a plan is in place. The key to this principle’s success lies in good analysis; otherwise, I will be constructing a puzzle with missing pieces and run the risk of inadvertently acting unethically. The trickle effect chart in Figure 1 provides an illustrated contextual example.


Trickle Effect Chart

Figure 1: Trickle effect chart depicting the trickle effect guideline.

Knowledge pool. Share my knowledge and experiences with others in my profession through communities of practice, journals, or other visible forums.

By sharing my knowledge, I add to the greater professional knowledge pool. This allows us as professionals to build upon the knowledge and experience of others. This is a powerful tool worth cultivating because it enables us to make more informed and ethical decisions about performance improvement.

The Individual Importance
Ethics are volatile in nature and muddied by subjectivity, time, and the “form of society and the nature of the individual” (Lee, 2003, p. 78). The values and interpretations of the individual are key to sorting out the ethicality of a decision; it is in the best interest of each professional to have his or her own set of personal guidelines and to critically examine his or her current values. In conclusion, I believe Lee (2003) reinforces the importance and impact of the individual best in this statement:

We might like to think that we are guided by codes of ethics and our own principles, but in reality, our actions or inactions are down to ourselves as individuals. We might seek to justify them in retrospect by reference to wider generally agreed or upheld ethical considerations, but at the time of decision making and acting we have to rely on our own patterns of behavior and interpretation of the situation. (p. 81)


Burns, J. Z., Dean, P. J., Hatcher, T., Otte, F. L., Preskill, H., & Russ-Eft, D. (1999). Standards on ethics and integrity. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 12(3), 5–30.

Chyung, S.Y., Winiecki, D.J., & Downing, J.L. (2010). Training and performance improvement professionals’ perspective on ethical challenges during evaluation. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 23(1), 7-29.

Lee, M. (2003). On codes of ethics, the individual, and performance. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 16(2), pp. 72-89.

SmilinKatAbout the Author
Katherine E. Roberts is a senior instructional designer and human performance technologist at Lexmark International, Inc. She is a graduate student in the Organizational Performance and Workforce Learning program at Boise State University and will complete her master’s degree in May 2017. Katherine can be reached at