How ethical are you?

July 25, 2013

In some of the research courses I teach, ethics is one of the topics we cover. In a university, ethics applies to many areas of our work including how we interact with our students and our research assistants, how we grade students’ work and how we conduct research.

Research involving human subjects must receive official approval from the university’s Independent Review Board (IRB) before we are allowed to begin our research. This applies equally to faculty and students.

Sometimes students are quite puzzled by this idea. They ask me, “Why does an independent board have to give you ethics clearance before you start a research project? Shouldn’t people just do the right thing?”

The problem is that sometimes people don’t do the right thing. Or they don’t think through what they are doing to understand what impact of their research or actions might have on others.

In 1971 Dr. Zimbardo conducted a psychological study that became known as the Stanford Prison Experiment. Stanford University students were used as research subjects in the study, which was designed to simulate prison life. The experiment was planned for two weeks, but the shut down the experiment after only six days. The students who were role-playing as guards had become sadistic and malicious. Those who were role-playing as prisoners became depressed and showed signs of severe stress.

The experiment revealed a great deal about human behaviour and how power in a relationship can be easily abused.

The Stanford Prison Experiment has become a classic case to talk about when we learn about professional ethics.

In today’s world, it is unlikely that the experiment conducted by Dr. Zimbardo over 40 years ago would receive ethics clearance from an independent review board. It’s not that Dr. Zimbardo broke any laws. It’s that the risks to the research subjects would be too high.

It is worth noting that professional ethics goes beyond research. Inevitably, our class discussions get around to ethical conduct as part of every day professional practice. Students begin to develop an awareness of how their actions, words and attitudes may be harmful or unethical. I often recommend that they read Better Ethics Now: How to Avoid the Ethics Disaster You Never Saw Coming by Dr. Chris Bauer. He demystifies the topic of ethics in plain and simple language that is easy to understand.

Sometimes they ask me, “How do I know if what I am doing is ethical?”

I usually answer them in two ways:

Firstly, if you have to ask yourself that question, then chances are good that there may be an ethical issue.

Secondly, if you are really not sure, ask yourself this: If your greatest mentor was standing by your side, would they be proud of you for what you did?

That question assumes, of course, that our mentors are ethical, too. More often than not, we put our mentors up on a bit of a pedestal. We want them to be proud of us and we would feel happy if we had their approval.

If our mentors or colleagues disapprove of our actions or question our judgement, we probably are not acting in an ethical manner. Ethics isn’t about doing what’s legal. It’s about doing what’s right.

Every day we are faced with ethical choices as part of our daily professional practice. Ethics can be learned and they can be improved. That’s one of the aspects of Dr. Bauer‘s book that I really like. He let’s us know that everyone is capable of improving and learning to be more aware and more ethical every day.

Professionalism goes beyond using polite language or wearing business attire. At the core of our day-to-day interactions and professional actions, we must take care that we are never causing harm to others or putting them at any sort of risk, particularly when we are in a position of power.


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

A Season of Ethical Enterprise

December 9, 2011

I have dear friends who are vehemently opposed to capitalism. Personally, I’m not opposed to capitalism. I am, however, opposed to greed, manipulation, lies and unethical practices. There are those who might argue that those things are synonymous with capitalism.

I wholeheartedly disagree. Capitalism is defined as:

An economic system in which investment in and ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange of wealth is made and maintained chiefly by private individuals or corporations, especially as contrasted to cooperatively or state-owned means of wealth. (Source: Captialism –

If an independent farmer takes his vegetables to the market and sells them to people who need nutritious food to eat, he is a capitalist. If he says his food is organic when in fact it is full of nasty chemical pesticides, he is a liar.

Swirl of giftsThere are amazing examples of admirable production, distribution and sale of goods (i.e. capitalism). Etsy, for example, is not only a marketplace it is “a community of artists, creators, collectors, thinkers and doers”. But make no mistake about it, people buy and sell goods freely. That’s capitalism in its truest form.

Kiva is an organization dedicated to helping entrepreneurs in developing countries access microfinance loans. There are over half a million lenders. Lenders are financing

entrepreneurship, which is free and independent business. Entrepreneurs in developing nations are empowered to develop products and services to sell in order to make money. That’s capitalism. It helps them gain skills, knowledge and financial independence. That’s good, right?

Some social justice advocates adore initiatives like Kiva and Etsy, but their neighbour who opens a shop or a service business is loathsome. Trust me, as an educational entrepreneur, I can assure you that the many entrepreneurs in the developed world struggle financially. Some even live in poverty. Is the idea that as long as someone is trying to move out of poverty, capitalism is OK, but after you’ve passed that magical “poverty” line, business transforms as a vehicle going straight to depths of evil? I have never been very clear on where people draw the line… or why?

I grew up under the poverty line, with a single, immigrant mother who came to Canada with a grade 10 education. We never owned a home or a car.

For extra cash, she would pool her money with a couple of other ladies in the neighbourhood. They would rent a table a local flea market on the weekends where they would sell their crafts, knitting and crocheting. They worked hard to make enough product to keep the table going, doing informal market research along the way. If an item didn’t sell, they wouldn’t make any more of it. If it did sell, they’d make more of it. They responded to market demand by observing and analyzing their own sales. It was Etsy “old school”. Through her flea market sales, she was able to afford “extras”… Saturday night supper at the local diner (another capitalist endeavour owned by a local Greek family) or tickets to a movie. Her salary did not allow for such luxurious. Her entrepreneurial endeavours did. No wonder I have entrepreneurship in my blood.

Now I own a car and a home… I’m working on the corporate jet, but don’t hold your breath. (Kidding!) My point is that part of the reason I have been able to move out of poverty into a more middle class life is due to owning a business. I have also been an educator, a researcher, a writer and speaker. These are all essential elements of a career that has involved being both an employee of large organizations (usually universities, colleges or school boards) and being an entrepreneur. The work is the same. My dedication to my students, clients and co-workers is the same. My obsession with producing the best quality work I can never leaves. I seek to serve, to help others grow and develop and to promote lifelong learning as a way of life.

Along with the entrepreneurial genes came a deep drive to be creative and industrious, to work hard, to do honest work for a fair price and be ethical in one’s dealings. If you’re not honest, that just ticks customers off. It also ticks off co-workers, bosses and students. And rightly so.

Which brings me to my point. To my fellow entrepreneurs – and particularly those who are in the business of selling educational products, training, courses, books and educational services – I hereby declare this the Season of Ethical Enterprise. To celebrate this season, I call on ethical entrepreneurs everywhere to:

  • Give something this season that does not involve our name or logo on a calendar, pen or other swag. Make a donation to a charity on your clients’ behalf. If you can not afford to give money to a charity, give the gift of yourself: help someone do something they couldn’t otherwise do, give helpful advice (without a consultation fee) or give someone an hour of your time as a mentor.
  • Refuse to engage in the “holiday swindle”. Giving someone the “gift” of 50% off your services or products if they buy before the end of the month is not a gift. In fact, calling it a gift isn’t even ethical. It’s a sale. Call it what it is. You are not being benevolent or generous when you tell people that you are giving them a gift, but really you are asking them to open their wallets.
  • Encourage ethical enterprise. Have conversations with others about topics such as corporate social responsibility or green business.
  • Think carefully and act mindfully when it comes to holiday spending. What are you spending and why?

I believe to the depths of my soul that business can be a force for good and not evil. It starts with a deep commitment to ethics, transparency and accountability. This is the perfect time of year to focus on building relationships, deepening our commitment to building a better world and helping each other. You just can’t put a price tag on that.

What would you add to my list?


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Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.

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