Jenny Baker
/ Categories: TIP, 2021, 583

Is That Ethical? The Current State of Industrial-Organizational Psychology Graduate Training in Ethics

Rebecca M. Brossoit, Jacqueline R. Wong, Faviola Robles-Saenz, Larissa K. Barber, Tammy D. Allen, & Thomas W. Britt

The field of psychology has a long history of ethical issues related to the treatment of human participants and nonhuman animal subjects.1 In recent years, the field has continued to be scrutinized for ethical issues (e.g., scientific fraud, sexual harassment). By 1953, the first version of the APA Ethics Code was created (Smith, 2003), and currently, the APA Ethics Code includes five general ethical principles (i.e., beneficence and nonmaleficence, fidelity and responsibility, integrity, justice, and respect for people’s rights and dignity), alongside the detailed Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, intended to ensure that psychologists are upholding their responsibility to “improve the conditions of individuals, organizations, and society” (APA, 2017, p. 3).

Relevant to the specific area of industrial-organizational (I-O) psychology, recent highly publicized scandals in business and government (e.g., Facebook and Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in the 2016 Trump campaign) also highlight extreme instances of unethical behavior. Even less egregious ethical dilemmas can cause distress to those navigating how to respond and to individuals who are impacted by those decisions. With often competing demands (e.g., worker rights, worker health and safety, company profits, goals of management), an understanding of ethics and how to address potential ethical dilemmas is critical for individuals in the field of I-O psychology, especially given the diverse occupations held by individuals with I-O degrees (e.g., research, teaching, consulting, executive coaching, government work). Relatedly, Lefkowitz (2008) has argued for the adoption of a scientist–practitioner–humanist model, in which values of social justice and fairness are balanced alongside traditional bottom-line business objectives and research training. In this way, operating from a humanist model would mean that I-Os question whether something is the right thing to do as often as asking whether something is valid and cost effective (Lefkowitz, 2008).

Incorporating ethics training in graduate programs is one way for I-O academics and practitioners to learn about and uphold the field’s proclaimed values. Further, training in ethics may enable I-Os to effectively navigate ethical issues both in the field (e.g., consulting practices) and in more tangential areas (e.g., corporate social responsibility, organizations’ involvement in politics). SIOP includes “Ethical, Legal, Diversity, and International Issues” as the first competency in the SIOP Guidelines for Education and Training in Industrial-Organizational Psychology (referred to as the SIOP Guidelines hereafter; SIOP, 2017). The placement of these topics among the other foundational competencies (e.g., fields of psychology, research methods, history of psychology) signals the importance of training I-O graduate students on ethics. Moreover, in a recent survey of graduate program directors in I-O and related fields, “ethical, legal, and professional contexts of I-O psychology” was deemed one of the most essential competencies for students to learn in both master’s and PhD programs (Payne et al., 2015). However, individuals in our field have called attention to the need for effective teaching of ethics, in which ethical behavior is impacted (e.g., Naidoo, 2020). This study was conducted to gather information about the methods and extent of ethics training in I-O graduate programs, with an emphasis on graduate coursework.


In the spring of 2020, program directors from master’s and doctorate I-O graduate programs were emailed with invitations to participate in a 10-minute survey regarding the curriculum and educational requirements in their I-O program. Graduate programs in psychology departments were identified using the Graduate Training Programs in I-O Psychology and Related Fields search engine on the SIOP website. Next, the email addresses of I-O program directors were obtained from the SIOP website and cross-referenced with information provided on university websites. In the event that program director information was not up to date on these websites, recruitment messages requested that those who were not program directors forward the survey to an individual who would be better suited to complete the survey. Broadly, survey questions asked about graduate training in ethics (particularly coursework in ethics), as well as perceptions of the preparedness of students to address ethical issues and the extent to which graduate training in ethics is valued within programs.2


The survey response rate was 50% (i.e., 143 I-O program directors were contacted and 71 participated). Participants represented master’s (63%), PhD only (15.5%), and combined master’s/PhD (32%) programs,3 primarily from the United States (86%), and conducted (prior to COVID-19) primarily in-person (68%) compared to online (4%) or a hybrid of in-person and online (20%).4

Training Methods

Less than half of I-O graduate programs (44% of all I-O programs; 42% of master’s programs and 35% of PhD programs5) offer a course on ethics. Specifically, 27% of I-O graduate programs (24% of master’s programs and 23.5% of PhD programs) offer a required ethics course, and 17% (18% of master’s programs and 12% of PhD programs) offer an elective ethics course. Required ethics courses range from 1–4 course credits (M = 2.44 credits), and elective ethics courses range from 3–4 credits (M = 3.09). In about half (47%) of programs with a required ethics course, and in a quarter (25%) of programs with an elective ethics course, students typically take the course early (e.g., in the first year) of their degree program. Seventy percent of I-O graduate programs (73% of master’s programs and 68% of PhD programs) incorporate ethics in other courses. Finally, about half of I-O graduate programs incorporate graduate training on ethics in conversations in lab and/or advising meetings (53.5%), and some incorporate graduate training on ethics in professional development workshops (24%). See Figure 1.

Figure 1
Methods for Training Ethics in I-O Graduate Programs














Note. Figure depicts responses from all types of programs (i.e., master’s only, PhD only, and master’s/PhD combined). The y-axis reflects count data.


Content of Coursework

The topic areas covered in required ethics courses include research (89%), consulting/applied work (89%), internships (58%), teaching (47%), advising/mentoring (42%), and other topics (e.g., diversity, employment law, general professionalism; 21%). The topic areas covered in elective ethics courses include research (42%), consulting/applied work (83%), internships (25%), teaching (25%), advising/mentoring (8%), and other topics (e.g., business ethics; 17%). See Figure 2. Seventy-four percent of required ethics courses are I-O program specific (i.e., taught by I-O faculty and/or dedicated to I-O ethics issues), and 21% are general (i.e., span different disciplines of psychology and/or are taught by non-I-O faculty), whereas 58% of elective ethics courses are I-O program specific, and 33% are general. For programs that incorporate ethics into other courses, these include research methods courses (92%), core I-O courses (72%), professional skills courses (54%), practicum courses (34%), history courses (2%), and other courses (e.g., statistics, employment law; 8%).

Figure 2
Topics Covered in Required and Elective Ethics Courses in I-O Graduate Programs















Note. Figure depicts responses from all types of programs (i.e., master’s only, PhD only, and master’s/PhD combined). Of the 71 respondents, 19 indicated that their program offered a required ethics course, and 12 indicated that their program offered an elective ethics course. The y-axis reflects count data.

Reasons for Not Offering Ethics Courses

Fifty-six percent of I-O graduate programs (58% of master’s programs and 65% of PhD programs) do not offer required or elective ethics courses. These are the reasons for not offering an ethics course: Ethics is included as a unit in other courses (70%), there is no formal requirement to have an ethics course (32.5%), students already have a high course load (30%), lack of faculty availability to develop and/or teach a new course (20%), having an ethics course has never been considered (20%), lack of student interest (7.5%), lack of faculty interest (7.5%), lack of faculty expertise/qualifications to teach an ethics course (7.5%), other programs don’t offer courses in ethics (7.5%), other reasons (e.g., ethical issues are discussed as they arise; 12.5%), and 5% of program directors did not know the reason why an ethics course was not offered in their program. See Figure 3.

Figure 3
Reasons for Not Offering Ethics Coursework in I-O Graduate Programs


















Note. Figure depicts responses from all types of programs (i.e., master’s only, PhD only, and master’s/PhD combined). Of the 71 respondents, 40 indicated that their program did not offer either a required ethics course or an elective ethics course. Only those 40 responded to this question. The x-axis reflects count data.

Preparedness of Students

Most program directors think graduates from their I-O program are sufficiently prepared6 to address ethical issues in research (69%), about half think graduates are sufficiently prepared to address ethical issues in consulting/applied work (58%) and internships (50%), and less than half think graduates are sufficiently prepared to address ethical issues in advising/mentoring (39%) and teaching (28%).

Program Values

Overall, program directors perceive that their I-O program values graduate training in ethics in research (95% agree7, consulting/applied work (87% agree), internships (85% agree), advising/mentoring (76% agree), and teaching (72% agree).



An understanding of ethics is critical in psychology broadly and is also uniquely important in the field of I-O. Unsurprisingly, the value of graduate training in ethics, especially related to research, is widely agreed upon in I-O graduate programs. One of the ways that the importance of ethics can be communicated to graduate students is to offer coursework on the topic. However, less than half of I-O graduate programs offer an ethics course. Further, offering ethics coursework early in students’ degree progression (e.g., the first year of a graduate program) can also signal the value of ethics. Currently, about half of required ethics courses are taken early in students’ degree progression, though only a quarter of elective ethics courses are taken early. Although most programs do not offer ethics-specific courses, ethics are typically covered as units in other courses. Relatedly, inclusion of ethics in other coursework is the most common reason for not offering a separate ethics course, followed by there not being a formal requirement, and students already having a high course load.

Research and consulting/applied work are the most common topic areas that are covered in ethics-specific coursework, and nearly all programs incorporate ethics in research methods courses. Fittingly, we found that most program directors believe that graduates from their program are sufficiently prepared to address ethical issues in research, followed by about half who believe graduates have sufficient preparedness in consulting/applied work and internships. However, perceptions of sufficient preparedness of graduates to address ethical issues in advising/mentoring and teaching are low. Given that these topics are also less common in ethics courses, it may be appropriate to incorporate advising/mentoring and teaching ethics in courses and/or in other training modalities (e.g., supervised experience, role modeling; SIOP, 2017).

For programs that are interested in expanding their curriculum to include an ethics course, SIOP’s Committee for the Advancement of Professional Ethics (CAPE; Knapp & Lefkowitz, 2018) provides online resources (e.g., syllabi, reading lists, ethical dilemma scenarios), and there are a number of textbooks and book chapters specific to ethics in I-O (e.g., Lefkowitz, 2012, 2013, 2017). Of note is that the APA Ethics Code is currently being assessed and revised (APA, 2018). Given that SIOP has adopted the APA Ethics Code as our profession’s ethics code (and members agree to adhere to the Ethics Code regardless of their affiliation with APA), graduate training should reflect upcoming revisions that are made to the APA Ethics Code.

Limitations and Future Research

Our survey had a 50% response rate, raising the possibility that the program directors who responded may have stronger opinions regarding ethics and represent programs more likely to address ethics. Therefore, the percentage of I-O programs with ethics courses may be lower than presented in the present article. Having responses from the remaining half of programs who did not respond would provide a clearer picture of how I-O graduate programs are training students on ethics. We also decided to focus on I-O programs within psychology departments but recognize that there are closely related programs in other departments (e.g., business). Therefore, future work could explore the extent to which graduate students in related disciplines receive ethics training. Additionally, the focus of this study was primarily on ethics courses but revealed that graduate training is also occurring in professional development workshops as well as in lab and advising meetings. It would be useful to understand more about the content of these workshops and discussions.

In line with this, the SIOP Guidelines recommend that ethics training occur not only in formal coursework but also through supervised experience and field research, on-the-job training, modeling/observation, involvement in funded research, and collaborative research (SIOP, 2017). Researchers could explore the extent to which these other methods are used to develop ethics-related competencies. It would also be advantageous to explore the effectiveness of different training methods, as Naidoo (2020) called attention to the inconclusive research pertaining to the effectiveness of courses on ethics. One additional area for future research is to address whether training and mentoring on ethics-related issues in graduate school is related to later outcomes for graduates of I-O programs. Finally, data were collected from I-O program directors, so future studies that capture student and alumni perspectives (e.g., perceptions of ethics training, the extent to which students and alumni feel prepared and confident in addressing ethical issues) is an important next step. 



1 Information included in this manuscript has not been published or under consideration for publication elsewhere, though preliminary results were shared with I-O program directors via email in June of 2020 to thank them for their participation and because we believed it was important for this information to be available before we were able to publish the results. Rebecca Brossoit and Jacqueline Wong would like to thank Tori Crain and Gwen Fisher for providing guidance and insight throughout this project and for encouraging us to challenge and improve our education. This research was supported by the Mountains and Plains Education and Research Center, T42OH009229, funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or the Department of Health and Human Services.

2 The first author is happy to share the full survey with anyone who is interested.

3 Some participants selected more than one option for the type of graduate program. In all analyses, the denominator included all participants that selected a given response.

4 If the total percentage is greater than 100%, this reflects questions with a “select all that apply” response option and/or cases where the rounding of decimals equated to a value greater than 100. If the total percentage is less than 100%, this reflects questions that some participants chose not to answer.

5 PhD programs include PhD only and combined master’s/PhD programs.

6 Response options included unprepared, somewhat unprepared, somewhat prepared, and sufficiently prepared. Results reflect those who indicated sufficiently prepared. N/A responses were recoded as missing.

7 Response options included strongly disagree, disagree, neither agree nor disagree, agree, and strongly agree. Results reflect those who indicated either agree or strongly agree.



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