Ethical behaviors are behaviors that are consistent with a moral foundation. A society, culture, family, or religion, may set out moral foundations for us to follow.
Generally, ethical behaviors necessitate introspection and setting a standard for ourselves. Such standards might include following rules like “do unto others as we would have done to us”, engaging in prosocial behaviors that underpin healthy communities, and behaving in ways that we can personally be proud of.
Common examples of ethical behaviors include following rules, keeping secrets, remaining loyal, and telling the truth.
Definition of Ethical Behavior
Ethical behaviors need to be consistent with our concepts of honesty and fairness in both interpersonal and professional relations and activities.
In some cultures, this definition also includes the notion of respect for the diversity of individuals and groups.
Ethical behavior encompasses one-to-one relations between two individuals, as well as society-wide structures (for example, how governments and societies treat marginalized groups).
Furthermore, ethical behavior covers broader considerations such as how mankind interacts with the environment.
Ethical behavior therefore is a concept that addresses a full range of social behaviors, from those that are minute, to global in scale.
Examples of Ethical Behavior
1. Following Company Rules
Rules are everywhere. There are rules about driving. Rules about conducting business. Unwritten rules about how we interact with others, and of course, rules from our employer.
When you get hired, you sign a contract, and most likely that contract will state that you must follow company rules. A lot of those rules cannot be fully enforced however, because the company just doesn’t have the resources.
For example, not spending your time at work surfing the internet. Or, not taking office supplies. These are fairly basic rules that most companies have, but can’t actually enforce. So, it is up to the individual employee to follow the rules even if they are unlikely to get caught breaking them.
That is the ethical thing to do.
2. Returning a Dropped Wallet
What would you do if you were walking behind someone on a crowded sidewalk and their wallet fell out of their pocket?
Or, maybe they were sitting on a park bench and got up to go somewhere when their wallet fell out of their back pocket.
Most people are going to pick up the wallet and try to get the person’s attention. That is the right thing to do. It is a small gesture, but it is an ethical one.
Small acts like this are what keeps a society intact. It reminds us that there are unwritten rules of behavior in every society. Without upholding those principles, even on a small scale, there will eventually be chaos.
3. Correcting a Billing Error
Have you ever had dinner in a restaurant and found an error on the bill? Of course, if the waitress overcharged us for something, we will definitely call her attention to the mistake. It’s not even a question.
But what if she forgot to charge you for that extra order of guacamole dip? It’s not a lot of money, especially compared to the total bill, and the restaurant makes plenty of dough.
Every table is full and it’s a Wednesday night. It’s not like the place is going to go out of business over one free order of dip.
Here, a person with particularly strong ethics and integrity will likely still correct the billing error, knowing that they agreed to the price when placing the order.
Maintaining confidentiality is like keeping a secret; it’s not as easy as it looks. Some of us have no problem keeping our mouths closed, while there are others that simply can’t control themselves.
Word can spread around the office like a wildfire. Most of the time, it is harmless and the news is just meaningless drivel that amounts to not much more than gossip. People might not like it when it is about them, but the consequences will not be so tragic.
If a colleague lets you in on the latest news about the company’s downsizing plan, or who will get that coveted promotion to Europe, they will surely ask you to keep your lips sealed. If you are a good friend, and an ethical colleague, you know what to do.
5. Being a Whistleblower
A whistleblower is a current or former employee of an organization that reports unlawful acts to the appropriate authorities.
In 1989 the United States Congress passed the Whistleblower Protection Act which protects individuals from retaliation from their employers.
Corporations and even smaller companies can possess tremendous legal resources. This represents an enormous threat to any individual that might consider providing information to law enforcement or a governmental agency.
Being protected can encourage employees to do the right thing and report wrongdoing. Sometimes ethical behavior needs to be protected by law. Even still, filing a complaint against an employer is not without risks. Finding another job in the industry can be incredibly difficult, maybe even impossible.
6. Compassion for the Disadvantaged
Although we like to think that everyone is treated equally, it simply isn’t the case. Many people are born into households where the cards are stacked against them.
In fact, statistically speaking, most people in the world are born in countries where there are no cards for them at all. A person could have a tremendous musical talent or the neural density of Einstein, but without access to an economic and educational infrastructure that will facilitate their growth, nothing will happen.
Those of us born in a supportive family in an industrialized country with a flourishing economy are the exception, not the rule. Understanding the magnitude of this good fortune will help us develop compassion for those that are far less fortunate.
7. Loyalty in Relationships
There are many types of relationships: friendships, colleagues, romantic partners, and of course the marriage. Despite their different manifestations, trust is a core component of each one.
We know that we should never betray a friendship. Stabbing a colleague in the back is the worst kind of office politics, especially if that person is our friend. Of course, cheating on a romantic partner or a spouse is unconscionable.
Although life is full of temptations, the ability to refrain and resist and be loyal to the people around us is the right thing to do. Forging trust through loyalty is one of the things that makes those relationships so valuable.
Life will not always be easy, and there will be times when you will need to lean on others. Let’s just hope that you can trust the people around you when you encounter those moments.
8. Foreign Aid
Ethical behavior is not limited to individuals. Foreign aid is defined as the international transfer of goods, services, or funding to another country or organization.
Two well-known organizations that distribute foreign aid are the World Bank and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
Foreign aid is a way for economically developed countries to facilitate development of third-world nations. The aid is used to combat disease, alleviate poverty and hunger, or provide emergency assistance after natural disasters. It is also sometimes used to encourage democratic reforms or human rights.
Although not without criticism, it is difficult to argue against the notion of helping other nations grow economically. It is an act of ethical behavior on a very large scale and has done tremendous good in many parts of the world.
9. Telling the Truth
This is probably the most obvious example of ethical behavior. Telling the truth is not as easy as it sounds, however. In fact, most people cannot go a whole day and only tell the truth.
Sometimes being honest means revealing uncomfortable information or embarrassing someone. Should we really tell our best friend that the clothes they are wearing make them look awful?
So, the issue of when is it okay to not tell the truth can get complicated very fast. One thing is for sure however: consistently telling the truth is very liberating. A lot of stress is eliminated by simply always telling the truth.
If you want to take this principle one step further, then you can try practicing radical honesty.
10. Taking Responsibility
Admitting a mistake is hard to do. Even though we all make them from time to time, or every day as the case might be, taking responsibility is tough.
No one likes to look bad. Admitting that the missing page in the report the client took home is because you spilled coffee on it won’t destroy your career, so what’s the problem?
The problem is that the pressure to be perfect is real. Admitting fault is a blow to our public image. At least, that’s what we think.
Maybe taking responsibility for this blunder will actually gain the respect of others. They will see us as trustworthy and humble. These are admirable qualities and may help us receive a more significant promotion down the road.
We usually think that career advancement requires being ruthless, but there may be more than one path over the long run.
11. Caring for the Elderly
Ethical societies care for the elderly among them. Elderly people have often spent years caring for others, and now it’s their turn to be looked after.
In some societies, this might take the form of multigenerational households where adult children can care for their parents. Other societies might pay for retirement homes through taxation to ensure all the elderly people are cared for.
Care for the elderly is also important on an individual level. We need to look after our parents and even elderly people on the street. We can consider this an ethical behavior because it involves caring for the vulnerable and most in need rather than letting them suffer or taking advantage of them.
12. Respecting Children’s Best Interests
Children are another category of vulnerable people in our society who we need to look after. Some may consider it to be our ethical duty.
Young people are such an important vulnerable group that governments have taken on the ethical duty of protecting them. We have special laws about making sure children are protected from needing to work, given the right to education, and are restricted from harmful behaviors.
These protections demonstrate society’s belief that children are a special group in our society.
Similarly, on an individual level, an ethical person would take special care to make sure children in their lives (and even children they see in public) are highly protected.
13. Asking for Permission
When we take things from other people without their permission, we are acting unethically. Some people may even call it stealing.
The ethical thing to do is to ask for permission. (This, coincidentally, is also an example of a learned behavior).
For example, if you need a drink of water and you see someone else with a water bottle, you can ask them if you can have a drink. By asking, you’re showing due respect and deference to the person who owns the water.
Similarly, it’s the right thing to do to ask for permission from someone before entering their house or even their office at work.
14. Setting Transparent Rules
In corrupt societies, governments choose not to set transparent rules around the conduct of business and access to political favors.
By contrast, ethical societies will work to ensure that rules are clear and clearly followed by everyone. It is then the court’s job to ensure those rules are followed so everyone lives in a fair society.
The setting of fair and transparent rules is also required in our day-to-day lives.
For example, if you’re playing a sports game or even a game like poker, transparency is required in order to ensure fairness and to prevent unethical behaviors from happening (examples of unethical behaviors in this context include cheating, card counting, and biased refereeing decisions).
See Also: Examples of Transparency
15. A Fair Day’s Pay for a Fair Day’s Work
One of the mantras of unions is “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.” The idea here is that businesses treat their workers with respect if workers come to work with good work ethic.
Whether you like unions or feel they get in the way of business, most people agree that their theoretical purpose is to ensure that relationships between employees and employers are more ethical (see more: pros and cons of unions).
They advocate for fair wages, time off, safe environments, and benefits to ensure workers can have a comfortable living.
Imagine a world where people get so underpaid that they can’t really make ends meet despite working a full-time job. Unfortunately, that’s the reality for many people in this world. And most of us would agree that this is a feature of an unethical society.
Ethical behavior in psychology is a very abstract concept, but has very tangible consequences. Each day we encounter situations that will require an analysis of what is, and what is not the right thing to do.
These situations can be relatively small in significance, such as should we correct a minor mistake on a dinner bill, to matters that can impact an entire society, such as reporting a company for discriminatory labor practices.
Practicing ethical behavior as individuals can help us maintain good relations with our friends and loved ones, as well as being good for our career. When countries practice ethical behavior, the results can save the lives of millions of people and the planet.
Keeping our principles firmly grounded in ethics is critical now more than ever. The issues we face come rapidly, and frequently, so we should be getting pretty good at.
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Williams, V. (n.d.). Foreign aid. New York: Encyclopedia Britannica.