Academic Advising Resources


The Importance of Values and Culture in Ethical Decision Making
Authored By: Christine Chmielewski

Ethical standards are the standards of our environment that are acceptable to most people. In the western world these standardsare, in large part, based on Judeo-Christian principles.Generally referred to as mores, ethical standards are what the majority accepts as good, and the way they behave without imposed rules and regulations.Within our societal structure, sanctions are often imposed on those who fail to follow ethical standards, and laws dictate consequences for those found guilty of unethical behaviors.

Ethical thinking involves the intricate process used to consider the impact of our actions on the individuals or institution we serve. While most decisions are routine, we can unexpectedly face an ethical dilemma when unusual situations occur suddenly for which an immediate response is needed.

The foundation of ethical decision-making involves choice and balance; it is a guide to discard bad choices in favor of good ones. Therefore, in making ethical decisions, one of the first questions to consider is 'what a reasonable man would do in this situation?'For tougher decisions, advisors may find three rules of management helpful (Hojnacki, 2004).

  1. The Rule of Private Gain. If you are the only one personally gaining from the situation, is it is at the expense of another?  If so, you may benefit from questioning your ethics in advance of the decision.
  2. If Everyone Does It. Who would be hurt? What would the world be like? These questions can help identify unethical behavior.
  3. Benefits vs. Burden. If benefits do result, do they outweigh the burden?

When people work closely together on a project, individuals tend to take on the core values of the group. Individuals within a group often compromise their own values in favor of those held by the group. Because of this, groups should use the three rules of management to assess whether their organizational decisions are ethical. Since group dynamics are an increasingly vital measure of organizational success, and standards of behavior are viewed within the context of profit and integrity, it is imperative that the group conceptualize the impact of their decisions.

To be truly comprehensive, advisor development programs must address ethics and the role culture and values play in ethical decision-making. Our institutions have become more diverse. This is true in regard to easily recognizable differences, such as race and age, but also in terms of hidden differences, such as culture and disability. Care must be given to the reexamination of values and perspective,and how these influence so many ethical dilemmas.

We must understand that values are acquired in childhood and manifest themselves on our campuses as permanent perceptions that shape and influence the nature of our behaviors. Values involve emotion, knowledge, thought, and ultimately choice of response. Values vary between individuals and, because values govern behavior, they color the way individuals view and respond to their world. It is important to understand the impact values have on choice. While values can, and do, change over time, they represent a significant component of personality. It is through individual values that culture is defined, and provides broad social guidelines for desirable standards. Generally described as normal societal standards, or norms, values influence how people make choices.

When working with people, it is imperative that we appreciate that each person's intrinsic values are different. Because values are so ingrained, we are not often aware that our responses in life are, in large part, due to the values we hold andare unique to our own culture and perspective. Furthermore, we seldom reflect on the fact that the people with whom we associate hold their own unique set of values that may be different from our own. Advisors need to be aware that, like their students, they bring their own set of values to the advising session. Thus advisors must be aware of, and open to, these differences in values as they work within their institution's regulations and standards. Sometimes these are, or seem to be, conflicting.

Students are often developing their decision-making processes and may question the values held by their families and society. In our multi-cultural environment, ethical standards need to be addressed in advising situations and in our classrooms so that conduct can be understood and ethical challenges avoided. For example, plagiarism is an issue frequently addressed on North American campuses. We assume that our students have a common understanding of the issues involved, and have learned the requirements for appropriately citing sources. However students from cultures where vast memorization is expected or knowledge is considered common ownership often do not recognize that papers presented in our institutions must include proper citation of thoughts borrowed from others.

In "What is Ethical Behavior for an Academic Adviser?" (Buck, et al., 2001), the authors explain three continua of moral behavior. Advisors should locate their comfort zone along each of the following ethical continua and steer clear of either extreme:

  • Neutral vs. prescriptive. Those who operate in a neutral mode are reluctant to tell students what to do, preferring instead to let students discover the appropriate action with minimal guidance. On the other end of this continuum, a prescriptive advisor uses the authority of the position to express opinions and make recommendations.
  • Encouraging vs. discouraging. On one extreme, advisors look for ways to give positive messages to students while withholding any criticisms.  Advisors in the other extreme look for opportunities to chastise or dwell on negative consequences of student behaviors.

  • Judgmental vs. nonjudgmental. This continuum only exists within the advisor, not in the advisor's interactions with students. Judgmental advisors scrutinize everything, accepting nothing at face value. Nonjudgmental advisors accept what students or colleagues tell them without criticism (Buck, et al., 2001).

To be ethically successful, it is paramount that we understand and respect how values impact our social environment. How we perceive ourselves and operate within our environment is of such importance that institutions establish rules of ethical behavior that relate to practice. Institutions that examine power and responsibility, and audit their ethical decisions regularly, develop employees that function with honesty and integrity and serve their institution and community.

Without the emphasis on ethics, organizations can miss the opportunity to reinforce responsibility for their internal and external environment. This failure can lead to an outcry of negative public opinion, or even worse, legal issues. The measure of ethical success within institutions of higher learning has always been important, but no more so than in today's environment of regulatory and public scrutiny. Advisors, as a part of their institution, are accountable to it in a legal and moral sense.It is important that advisors operate within the constraints of ethical standards. We do a disservice to ourselves, our students, our institutions, and our profession if we do not address these issues regularly.

Christine Chmielewski
Academic Advisor
Indiana University South Bend
[email protected]



Buck, J., Moore J., Schwartz, M., and Supon S. (2001). What is Ethical Behavior for an Academic Adviser? The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 3(1) . Retrieved April 23, 2004, from


Hojnacki, William. (2004). Three Rules of Management. In Managerial Decision Making, graduate course conducted in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University South Bend.

Cite this using APA style as:

Chmielewski, C., (2004).The Importance of Values and Culture in Ethical Decision Making.Retrieved -insert today's date- from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site:  

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