Professional Ethics



Ethics background required: Students should be familiar with the four ethical frameworks presented in the first year curriculum (virtue ethics, deontology, utilitarianism, analogies). If they (or the professor) are not, brief summaries are provided in the activity section.

Subject matter referred to in this lab: Professional Ethics.

Placement in overall ethics curriculum:

Time required:

Learning objectives: Students will

Ethical issues to be considered: Professional ethics. May touch on issues such as correct use of resources, sexual harassment, discrimination, misreporting time worked, inadequate testing etc.


Preparation: Read through the entire lab. Think about examples from your own experience.

Possibly create a display (PowerPoint slide or other) of the ethical frameworks. Here is an example. You will also find this text in the activity section of this lab.

If this lab is to be presented online, this lesson is easily adapted to an asynchronous online environment where students would

Optional follow up assignment

After this lab is presented in class, students are asked to search for a professional organization in their discipline and read about the professional ethics listed on the organization’s site. Then assign the following questions:

  1. What organization did you find?
  2. Which professional ethic listed do you feel that you already practice? Why? Give an example.
  3. Which professional ethic listed do you feel that you could practice as a student? Why?
  4. Was there anything listed that surprised you?

Below are a few links (at the time of writing) to help.

Guide for Instructors

Lesson plan

Introduction (10 minutes)

The goal of this introductory exercise is to get students thinking about how hard it is to react correctly in the moment, and reasons why we may act in a way that is opposed to our character.

Scenario #1: Dent in Car

Scenario #2: Racist Jokes

Read: From the New York Times (“In Life and Business, Learning to Be Ethical” 2014)

When people predict how they’re going to act in a given situation, the ‘should’ self dominates — we should be fair, we should be generous, we should assert our values,” said Ann E. Tenbrunsel, a professor of business ethics at the University of Notre Dame who is involved in the EthicalSystems website. “But when the time for action comes, the ‘want’ self dominates” — I don’t want to look like a fool, I don’t want to be punished.

“Our survival instinct is to want to be liked and to be included,” said Brooke Deterline, chief executive of Courageous Leadership, a consulting firm that offers workshops and programs on dealing with ethical situations. “We don’t willfully do bad things, but when we’re under threat our initial instinct is to downplay or ignore problematic situations.”

Most people know the feeling: Something happens that we know is wrong and we mean to speak up or make it right. But we can’t quite figure out how to do it, and the moment passes. And then we justify that it was O.K. that we acted the way we did.

So how do we change this?

Like pilots who use flight simulators, people need to work on situations that cause them anxiety before they occur.

Activity (15 minutes)

Read or summarize to students: “We want to explore some situations that might give us anxiety and are associated with professional ethics in our future workplaces.”

Ask students to make a list of some unethical practices that could occur at work. (Post these where students can see them as the list is being made). Pull from your personal experience or from the list below to get students going.

Some unethical practices could be

Spend some time talking about why these things could happen. For example, someone might record hours that were not worked because they do not want to lose their job, but have finished the work and really need to pick up a child from school.

Talk about how you might respond to these issues as a co-worker. Consider using one of the ethical frameworks in your response if it is appropriate. Recall the frameworks:

Reflection as a class (5 minutes)

Ask students to think about times when they have acted out of character or not reacted at all when they know that they should have. What were the triggers? Can they relate to any of the reasons for acting out of character? Provide an opportunity for students to speak up, but don’t force it.

An example from the world of professors might be to decide to give easier exams that don’t adequately test a student’s knowledge because you don’t want to get poor student evaluations.

An example for a student might be to share an answer with a friend because you don’t want to lose a friendship.

Encourage them to practice being aware of these triggers in everyday interactions.

Wrap up (Optional assignment)

Outside of class time, use the optional assignment to give the students an opportunity to learn what their discipline’s professional ethics are and reflect on how they may practice some of them. This can be followed with a short discussion next class, on a class discussion board, etc.


  1. Provide three examples of unethical practices that could occur at work.

    • Possible answers: using substantial company resources for person purposes, padding expense reports, discrimination, sexual harassment, working less hours than reported.
  2. Name two reasons why someone would act differently in response to these unethical practices than they know they “should” act.

    • Possible answers: fear for their job, don’t want others to see them as a “snitch,” wouldn’t know what to say.
  3. Imagine that you are on a business trip with a colleague. Your company allows employees to get “deluxe” rooms, and pays for meals, but not for alcohol. You know that your colleague chose a cheaper room that comes with a special “wine and dine” package. In the end, it costs the company the same amount of money.

    Would you say that your colleague is acting unethically? Support your conclusion based on one of the frameworks discussed in class.

    • Possible Answers:

      • Unethical because it breaks company rules –- they are actually paying for the alcohol (uses deontology).
      • Unethical because conflicts with the virtue of honesty – lying by omission.
  4. Assume that you believe this is unethical behavior. How would you deal with it?

    • Possible Answers:

      • Remind your colleague that this is really against company policy and if they really can’t afford the wine, you’d be happy to buy them a bottle.

      • Suggest that they contact the employer and ask if they can make this trade.


“In Life and Business, Learning to Be Ethical.” 2014. New York Times.