Ethical Challenges in Performance Improvement

Jeanne Hites Anderson

Each day we can face challenges that can require ethical decisions in every phase of the performance improvement cycle. To make those decisions, we rely on our values or ethical principles. Ethics is concerned with what is good or bad, right or wrong. Most professional organizations have adopted a code of ethics which can guide one’s thinking and behavior on legal, professional and social standards of what is right. The definition of “right,” of course, can vary with situations and cultures.

In the Handbook of human performance technology, James Pershing defined human performance technology as “the study and ethical practice of improving productivity in organizations by designing and developing effective interventions that are results-oriented, comprehensive, and systemic” (Pershing, 2006, p. 6). He describes ethical practice by saying that “Key elements in ethical behavior are to do no harm to your clients, their customers, and the profession and to keep in the forefront serving the good of society” (p.10).

An Ethical Challenge

Several years ago, I was in preliminary talks with the director of a global nonprofit organization about leading an evaluation of projects throughout the world to improve performance and provide data for funders. The organization had many projects involving large numbers of people, so it seemed reasonable to evaluate a representative sample. He asked how the sample would be selected. I indicated that a random sample should be taken. He gave it a few minutes of thought and then told me that I could only survey those projects he selected. To me, this sounded like a red flag. Further discussions suggested that he wanted data only from the most successful projects. What would you do?

A Code of Ethics

Each of the professional associations in the fields of performance improvement, organizational development and instructional technology have codes of ethics that provide guidance. One example is the International Society for Performance Improvement code of ethics for Certified Performance Technologists. It includes: (1) the principle of adding value for clients, their customers, and the global environment; (2) promoting and using validated performance technology strategies and standards that align with an existing body of theory, research, and practice knowledge; (3) working collaboratively with clients and being a trustworthy strategic partner; (4) continually improving one’s proficiency in the field of HPT; (5) practicing integrity by being honest and truthful in representations to clients, colleagues, and others; and (6) maintaining client confidentiality and avoiding conflicts of interest (International Society for Performance Improvement, Certified Performance Technologist Code of Ethics).

Why Use Ethical Practice?

The advantages of choosing to be guided by ethical standards are that this can lead to more effective programs, maintain individual and department standing, credibility and leadership in the organization or community, and avoid professional and legal difficulty caused by such issues as conflict of interest.

My Solution to the Ethical Challenge

While I was looking forward to travel and leading the evaluation, I could not let the director think that he would get the data he needed to improve performance, and his donors and grant funders would not be pleased with data that had been intentionally skewed. Ultimately, I explained that I did not think that using only his selected projects would give him the data he needed to improve performance. He was not willing to change his position, so I chose not to lead the evaluation.


Burns, J. Z., Dean, P. J., Hatcher, T., Otte, F. L., Preskill, H., & Russ-Eft, D. (1999). Standards on Ethics and Integrity. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 12(3), 5-30.

Dean, P. J. (1993). A selected review of the underpinnings of ethics for human performance technology professionals‐Part one: Key ethical theories and research. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 3-32.

Dean, P. J., & Banks, M. M. (1993). A Selected Review of the Underpinnings of Ethics for Human Performance Technology Professionals‐Part Two: Professional Resources. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 6(4), 33-49.

Guerra, I. J. (2006). Standards and ethics in human performance technology. Handbook of human performance technology, 1024.

International Society for Performance Improvement, Certified Performance Technologist Code of Ethics. Retrieved from

Pershing, J.A. (2006). Human performance technology fundamentals. In J.A. Pershing (Ed.), Handbook of human performance technology (3rd ed., pp. 5-26). San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

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