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The I-O Ethicist

Bill Macey
Ethics Panel Members: Jerry Greenberg, Dan Ilgen, Rick Jacobs, Dick Jeanneret, Deirdre Knapp, Joel Lefkowitz, Rodney L. Lowman, Robert McIntyre, Lois Tetrick, Nancy Tippins, Walt Tornow, Vicki Vandaveer 

At times, we find ourselves in situations where the clear path is seemingly easy to determine, but those with whom we work dont see it quite that way or are not required to follow our Ethics Code. In this column, we explore a situation that follows from a psychologists attempt to persuade a client to do the right thing, as described in his/her words

I recently completed a test development and validation project. As part of my efforts, I trained the on-site personnel in administration, scoring, and interpretation of test outcomes. After completing the project, the senior HR manager informed me that he/she had previously used an adjective checklist as part of the selection process that effectively included a clinical interpretation of test scores. The HR manager claimed that the procedure was valid, but was unable to provide support of that claim. The HR manager stated his/her intent to continue to use that previously used process as a first hurdle, and then use the newly developed testing procedure as a second hurdle. I advised the HR manager that this was inappropriate and that the selection process would now be compromised by his/her insistence on using a procedure that lacked evidence of validity. However, despite my strong admonitions and guidance, the HR manager continues to use the process. My dilemma is how to best proceed at this point.

One of our panel members immediately differentiated between the situation where the psychologist is an external consultant and where the psychologist is an internal staff member. Citing the Ethical Code as follows:

1.01 Misuse of Psychologists Work

If psychologists learn of misuse or misrepresentation of their work, they take reasonable steps to correct or minimize the misuse or misrepresentation.

3.04 Avoiding Harm

Psychologists take reasonable steps to avoid harming their clients/patients, students, supervisees, research participants, organizational clients, and others with whom they work, and to minimize harm where it is foreseeable and unavoidable.

Our panel member went on to say that that if the situationconstitutes misuse, then the ethical problem hinges around whether or not the psychologist has taken reasonable steps to prevent the situation from occurring. What is reasonable depends partially on whether the psychologist is an employee of the organization or a consultant to it. It might be reasonable for the employee to write a letter to the HR Managers boss, the top-level HR person, or the CEO informing him/her of the problem associated with using an invalid test. It might be considerably less reasonable for a consultant to inform senior executives of the potential consequences of using an invalid selection instrument.

The further reaction of some of our contributing panel members was that perhaps this isnt an ethical dilemma at all but a political one. As one put it

The ethical choice seems clear, and the person chooses the right response. Beyond that, if he/she is a consultant, I see nothing he/she can do ethically but bow out. If the person is a staff member in HR, again he or she did the ethical thing. Beyond that, the situation is trickier with respect to having a strategy of responding that is politically acceptable, but I do not see these as ethical issues as much as strategic ones. The person chose the ethical response. Now the issue is how to stand up to it.

In response, another of our panel members again referred to the Ethics Code:

Ethical Principle 1.03 Conflicts Between Ethics and Organizational Demands: 

If the demands of an organization with which psychologists are affiliated or for whom they are working conflict with this Ethics Code, psychologists clarify the nature of the conflict, make known their commitment to the Ethics Code, and to the extent feasible, resolve the conflict in a way that permits adherence to the Ethics Code.

In this context, our panel member added:

What is the ethical obligation in a corporate setting to keep on resisting the use of the measure judged to be invalid? Does the psychologist have an obligation to go to higher authority? What other options are open to him/her? I believe this isthe political issue, but, as in most things, the beauty and devil are in the details. 

As this panel member sees it, the issue is one of how long and how vociferously a psychologist should persist in combating an issue of apparently inappropriate behavior. The details according to another of our panel members might be as follows:

1. Make sure that the HR manager knows the risks to the organization and the limits of my (the psychologists) involvementfor example, if it is challenged legally, I cannot defend the unvalidated adjective checklist.

2. (a) Offer to collect empirical validity evidence for both procedures and try to convince the manager to hold off using the adjective checklist in the meantime. (b) If the manager is adamant, request that the checklist be given as a last hurdle, rather the first, so as to impact fewer people, while engaged in doing 2(a).

3. As a last resort, repeat the warnings noted in (1) to the HR managers superior(s). I view this as an obligation I have to the welfare of this client (the organization, not the HR manager) that overrides the awkwardness its likely to cause between me and the HR manager. 

4. As a last, last resort (i.e., if I felt that my professional reputation was at risk), Id withdraw from the project and indicate in writing what the risks are, that my measures should not be used in this fashion, and that I will not be able to support such usage if asked.

Another of us added that if the client of record is not the HR manager, the ethical obligation has not yet been met:

If the client of record is someone else [i.e., other than the HR manager] within the organization the consultant retains the obligation to bring the situation to the attention of the client of record. This could involve a meeting with all concerned parties and should require presentation of the data from the new system (validity and adverse impact information) as well as the same information on the checklist (should that be available). This meeting could clear the air and I would recommend that the meeting be held with corporate counsel present.

I see this as less of an ethical issue and more of an organizational/professional onethe person bringing the question did express her/his views on the continued use of a tool that had unknown validity and could potentially reduce the utility of the valid system just created. The professional responsibility to inform the client has been met at least partially depending on how broadly we define the client. The real issue for me is whether or not ALL the relevant clients have been informed.

An Attempt at Closure

From a summary perspective, we seemingly converge on the following recommendations:

  • Inform all client contacts involved with the project of the risks inherent in implementing the apparently unvalidated procedure. Put that in writing if appropriate.
  •  Inform the client of your willingness and ability to defend the use of those components of the selection system for which you have been responsible in developing and implementing.
  • Gather all the information available on the unvalidated procedure. Detail what would be necessary to defend any components of the selection process for which you have not been responsible, including what would be necessary to establish evidence of validity. 
  • Reiterate that your support in defending their selection process is limited to those elements for which you have evidence of validity and proper implementation. 

Thoughts on When Have I Done Enough?

As I prepared an initial draft of our response to this dilemma, I reminded myself that the contributor asked specifically, What do I do next? This question implies a sense of discomfort with simply leaving the situation as it is. Put in other words, the ambiguity is not in the initial requirement to fully inform, but as described above, in the choice of just how far to pursue a course of action. Our sense of discomfort may arise from an assessment of personal risk or the recognition that the wrong choice may damage others. We may also recognize that the wrong choice could impact our own ability to work effectively within the organization in the future. Interestingly, this is perhaps not altogether different from the kinds of ethical situations organizational leaders regularly confront. Badaracco (2002) provides examples in some detail, and suggests that quiet leadersarent high-profile champions of causes, and dont want to be. They dont spearhead ethical crusades. They move patiently, carefully, and incrementally. They do what is rightfor their organizations, for the people around them, and for themselvesinconspicuously and without casualties (p. 1). Not surprisingly, this is easier said than doneand perhaps more importantly, suggests that our courage is needed most when we dont know whether we have, in fact, done enough. 

Revisiting an Earlier Column

In the October 2003 issue of TIP, we described a dilemma regarding publication credit and our panels response(s). As a follow-up, Betsy Shoenfelt wrote to suggest that we reference the January 2003 APA Monitor article that discusses changes to the new Ethics Code and specifically discusses why students in some instances should not be referenced as first authors on articles substantially based on their thesis research. The article may be found on the APA webpage at http://www.apa.org/monitor/jan03/newcode.html and reads in part as follows:

During the revision process, the Ethics Code Task Force received many comments expressing concerns over the 1992 requirement that masters students be listed as the primary author on work substantially based on their theses. Because many students write theses on work to which they are not the chief contributors, making them the first author on such work could conflict with other standards that stipulate that authorship reflect contribution. 

There are many instances where the student should be the first author, says [Celia] Fisher [chair of APAs Ethics Code Task Force], Standards 8.12a and b cover that. But there are instances where it would not be appropriate, and therefore we didnt want to make it a rule. 

Moreover, says Fisher, 

the added language about student-faculty discussions of publication credit mean masters students will be able to discuss with their advisers the different research and publications options before beginning their theses. 

Many thanks to Betsy for the suggestion and clear enhancement to the thoughts expressed in our earlier column. We would appreciate further comments and suggestions for improvement! 

How to Submit

 Ordway Ave., PO Box 87, Bowling Green OH 43402. Alternatively, you may submit your questions on the SIOP Web site at www.siop.org. Please note that your submissions and correspondence will be treated in strict confidence and will be completely anonymous.


     American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists. Washington, DC: Author.
     Badaracco, J. L., Jr., (2002). Leading quietly: An unorthodox guide to doing the right thing. Boston: Harvard Business School Press. 

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