Ethical Code of Conduct: Definition & Example

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  • 0:02 Definition
  • 1:22 Importance
  • 2:29 General Principles
  • 3:25 Ethical Standards of Conduct
  • 6:54 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Kinder
In this lesson, you'll learn about ethical codes of conduct and why they were developed. You'll also learn about the two main parts of an ethical code of conduct, which will be illustrated with some real-life examples.


Michelle has been treated for depression by her psychologist, Dr. Casanova, for three months. She begins to develop romantic feelings for him and wonders if he has reciprocating feelings. Dr. Casanova starts scheduling her appointments later in the evening and for longer periods of time. After some mutual flirting, Michelle declares her feelings to Dr. Casanova and he shares that he feels the same. A sexual encounter, a whirlwind romance, and a quick, painful break-up ensues. Michelle is left confused, devastated, and betrayed.

The above scenario is a good example of why ethical codes of conduct exist and the damage that can occur when the codes are violated. This lesson will help explain what ethical codes of conduct are, why they were developed, and describe their important components.

Ethical codes of conduct contain general principles and ethical standards of conduct that guide the behavior of a licensed health care professional. These codes vary across disciplines and state licensing bodies. For example, ethical codes of conduct may differ for a psychologist and a physician, or for a psychologist practicing in Ohio versus Virginia.


Ethical codes of conduct were developed to protect students, patients, and research participants from harm by a licensed provider. These individuals are at increased risk of harm due to the power differential between the provider (more power) and the patient (significantly less power).

In the example above, Dr. Casanova is in an ideal position to exploit Michelle for many reasons. He has considerable information about the most intimate details of her life. She, being the patient, likely has very little information about him. Also, as Dr. Casanova is the treatment provider, he is deemed as having expertise and knowledge. In comparison, Michelle is a vulnerable patient, likely in emotional pain and hoping for treatment. Due to this power differential, Dr. Casanova has to take great care to not take advantage of Michelle for his own personal gain. However, in this situation, it is clear he violated both her trust and his licensing board's ethical code of conduct.

General Principles

All ethical codes of conduct contain general principles of behavior. The general principles are guidelines that professionals should aspire to meet. The guidelines are not laws that are enforceable, but rather ideal standards that professionals should aspire to uphold. Good examples of general principles include those listed by the American Psychological Association:

  • Beneficence and non-maleficence: help others and do no harm.
  • Fidelity and responsibility: be trustworthy. Uphold professional standards. Take responsibility for one's own actions.
  • Integrity: be honest and truthful.
  • Justice: be fair and aware of one's own biases and limitations.
  • Respect for people's rights and dignity: respect the worth and dignity of others and their ability to make health decisions.

Ethical Standards of Conduct

All ethical codes of conduct also contain explicit ethical standards of conduct. The ethical standards of conduct are the rules of expected conduct that can be enforced by state licensing boards. Violating these ethical standards of conduct can result in legal consequences such as mandated supervision, suspension of the license to practice, and/or permanent revocation of one's license. Ethical standards, such as those found in the American Psychological Association's Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, often cover the following areas:

Resolving ethical issues

Attempt to resolve ethical issues by self-correction or by bringing it to the attention of the professional who is violating the standard. Unresolved issues must be reported to the licensing board.
Example violation: Dr. Cathem reports to the licensing board that his colleague is practicing without a license.

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