Personal Versus Professional Ethics – Subtle But Important Differences
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Every adult knows what ethics are. At least, they know their personal ethics. We rely on our ethics to navigate life’s choices – and to have the outcome of those choices be in our favor. In a professional setting, though, our personal ethics weave with the code of professional ethics within our career. Your individual set of personal ethics will influence your chosen profession and ethics, and vice versa. While one is self-defined and the other by industry, how both interact in the business world can guide you toward success. Here we discuss the differences between personal and professional ethics, as well as their significance together for professional engineers.
Defined as the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior, we rely on our personal ethics to help us make decisions. On a daily basis, this can be as simple as choosing whether to wipe down gym equipment after working out when staff isn’t paying attention. Your personal ethics define your sense of justice and expectations of how things should work. The ethics that we hold shape how we interact with and perceive the world. Common personal ethics shared by many include:
Consider finding $50 on the ground in a coffee shop. Your personal ethics help you decide if you want to keep the cash or ask those around if they dropped it. Often, this choice is influenced by what your expectation would be if you had lost the $50. Would you want someone to take it without hesitation or to try to return it? Your personal ethics define how you want the world to react to you, and therefore affect the way you react to the world.
Personal ethics are essential for navigating life. They help us not only make choices, but lead others, instill trust, and feel motivated. People with strong personal ethics have an easier time making decisions, so it is important to figure yours out. Take a moment the next time you make a moral choice – what is driving you to take the action you choose? Would you expect others to act in the same way? Why? All of these answers, which are up to individual interpretation, can guide you to understanding your personal ethics in greater depth.
Upon entering the workplace, professional ethics can take precedent over personal ones. Professional ethics include the standards for behavior set within your industry and company. In fact, the term professionalism originates from the vows taken within religious orders. Much like those vows, professional ethics are the rules and expectations you agree to abide by within your work environment. They provide a clear set of expectations for professionals across industries. Examples of ethics that are often seen in most professions include:
- Respect for Others
- Adherence to Law
You may notice similarities between common professional and personal ethics. This is because the desired ethics within a workplace are derived from the personal ethics most people look for in others. The set rules that come from these basic ethics vary in specificity among different industries but are often represented in some form.
Consider the $50 example from earlier. Only, this time, you found someone else’s unpublished research within your field of work, whether it is groundbreaking results from a recent study or a chef’s inspirational new dish that is yet to debut. The professional ethics of this situation take the moral debate out of the picture, no matter the content. It is expected within the professional world to give credit when due or face actionable, legal consequences. This boils down to honesty and respect for others within the professional world, although the exact circumstances can vary by industry.
Professional ethics are important for maintaining consistent expectations for behavior within the workplace. In any industry, they provide a set of guidelines that ensure all employees and clients feel safe and confident interacting within the professional world. They give clear rules for appropriate behavior as well as the consequences of inappropriate behavior, rather than leaving it up to moral debate.
Engineering Professional Ethics
As professional engineers, this industry-wide code of conduct is defined on a national scale. They include three sections of ethical expectations, the Fundamental Canons, the Rules of Practice, and the Professional Obligations.
Each standard within the Rules of Practice and Professional Obligations has sub-definitions that explicitly describe the expected behavior within more specific scenarios. More simply, though, professional engineers are expected to uphold the ethics of:
Professional engineers must also be committed to the protection of public safety, health, and welfare.
Check-in with yourself. Do these, albeit simplified, professional engineering ethics align with your personal ethics? How do they differ? It may be difficult to answer these questions if you haven’t spent much time identifying your personal ethics and researching the professional ones you’re expected to uphold. It is important to know where you stand personally and professionally, as well as how you define appropriate behavior while operating under both sets of ethics.
How They Intertwine
What made you decide to pursue a career as a professional engineer? The personal ethics that aligned with the professional ones of this career path may have motivated you to join it. This is most likely the first, but definitely not the last, time your personal and professional ethics have intertwined within your time as a professional engineer.
While your personal ethics may drive you to choose your career, the professional ethics within that industry dictate a more specific answer to any moral debates that may occur. That being said, professional ethics are not immune to interpretive differences due to individual understandings. When this occurs, it is most often on industry-specific ethics and situations rather than the broader ethical underlying concept like honesty.
For example, in 2003 a research team at the Boyce Thompson Institute published a groundbreaking report. Unfortunately, their exceptional results were not replicable, making the scientific community question the validity of the original report. This caused their research to be redacted, and the main author, Dr. Chandok, to be defamed. Dr. Chandok sued for this defamation, as it was never proven that her results were due to misconduct. This case remained up for debate within the scientific community for years, leading to ethical questions about co-author blame and whether it is appropriate for other scientists to call out published research in this manner. In the end, the case was dismissed in favor of the latter set of ethics – that further research to reproduce results is appropriate and expected, as well as without malice.
Dr. Chandok’s case is proof that professional ethics do not go without questioning or debate. It also shows the support and validation that clear and consistent professional ethical guidelines can provide when there is an instance of a moral debate. This case required personal ethics to be weighed against professional, which allows the concrete set of professional ethics to be adapted and grow to meet needs more effectively.
Balancing Personal and Professional Ethics as Professional Engineers
Ethics, whether personal or professional, are essential to decision-making processes as well as forming expectations. Within the professional world, it is important to balance the differences between your personal ethics and those set out within your company and industry. As professional engineers, we know there is a multitude of expectations within the broad set of professional ethics. This list of guidelines can be used to help you find greater success within your career rather than as a set of rules holding you back.
Continued education on the professional set of ethics for professional engineers is a possibility for your state’s required hours. It can help you not only adhere more effectively to the ethics of the profession but also distinguish the personal ethics that drive you to be a better professional engineer. In turn, this could lead you to further your career in the directions that align most with who you are as an individual.