How to describe the difference between personal & professional ethics

Updated April 17, 2017

Ethics is an arm of moral philosophy concerned with questions about right and wrong principles of conduct. Ethics are informed by personal beliefs, values and experiences, and produce reactions often described as a "gut instinct." Religious, social and institutional values also influence ethical principles, giving shape to concepts like justice, freedom and respect. Ethics structure the way decisions are made, and in the work environment, dilemmas can arise when personal and professional ethics come into conflict. In order to avoid ethical conflict, it is important to differentiate between personal and professional ethics.

Define personal ethics. Ethics authority, Major General Gerry E. White describes personal ethics as deeply felt convictions that develop from family, community, education and experience. Personal ethics structure personal decisions and behaviours, and provide a guide post for moral actions. In a paper written for the ethics consulting company Crossroads, author Larry Colero describes personal ethics as including qualities of benevolence, respect, trustworthiness, being fair, refraining from taking advantage and preventing harm.

Define professional ethics. Professional work often requires that people take on new ethical standards to fulfil their job functions. Some disciplines, such as law, medicine and law enforcement have their own codes of ethics, which dictate standards of behaviour. While professional work does not necessarily require that individuals give up their personal ethics, it often does mean that they have to adopt additional standards. Professional ethics include impartiality, confidentiality, disclosure and fidelity to professional responsibilities.

Examine where personal and professional ethics differ and are similar. Assess the overlap and distinctions between the two sets of values, and consider why different circumstances might demand different ethical principles. Determining their clear differences can aid with avoiding potential conflict, and can also bring awareness to which values a person is unwilling to compromise.

Create a case scenario. In order to fully understand the difference between personal and professional ethics, come up with a scenario that calls attention to their distinctions. For example, a lawyer takes on a case and is prohibited from discussing its details, as per the ethics of her profession. At home, however, she is accustomed to telling her partner everything, as her personal ethics value openness and sharing. However, in this instance she has to refrain from discussing the issue. Creating a hypothetical situation also helps to describe how personal and professional ethics sometimes require small compromises for upholding greater principles.

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About the Author

Helen Anderson has been writing and editing professionally since 2007. Her work has appeared in scholarly and popular publications, such as "Foreign Affairs" and "The New York Times." Anderson holds a master's degree in public health from Columbia University, where she is currently completing a Ph.D.