When I was in my second year of medical school at the University of Miami, while driving along the Fifth Street Bridge in South Beach I witnessed a car blast through a roadside construction barrier and careen off the side of the road into the water below. I quickly pulled over and watched as the car – along with the dazed elderly couple trapped inside – began to sink into the emerald green water. This was the early 1990’s when cell phones weren’t the commonplace items they are today, and while there was one person among the growing crowd of onlookers who happened to have one and called emergency services, I knew that by the time they arrived the car would be long gone at the bottom of the Biscayne Bay. So I pulled off my t-shirt, tossed my sandals to the side, and dove the fifteen feet into the water below. Along with two other men who followed my lead, I was able to use a rock to smash the rear window of the car and pull the terrified couple out just as it began to disappear into the murky depths. 

Now, I tell this story not in search of praise or to stroke my own ego, but because it is a prime example of my 26-year-old self embodying an aspect of personal code of ethics: to help people whenever and however I am able. In the years since that day I have come to understand that I was acting in line with my own personal values and morals, and in doing so am able to move through my life with integrity and self-respect.

What is a personal code of ethics?

Ethics are defined as the moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity, meaning a personal code of ethics is the guideline through which you navigate your life – both personally and professionally. Developing from your core values, work ethic, beliefs, and background, this code often becomes actionable goals used in a variety of challenging situations. While a person’s code of ethics are often influenced by what society dictates is “right” or “wrong”, at their core they are unique to each individual and will vary both in the level of importance certain values are placed at and the methods through which they are maintained. Some common traits in personal ethics are integrity, selflessness, honesty, loyalty, fairness, empathy, and respect, but it is important for each person to define exactly where their priorities lay. Your own code of ethics acts as a moral blueprint for what you believe in and how you relate to the rest of the world.

Why do you need a code of ethics?

My father was also a doctor, well-known for starting the first dermatopathology lab in the country. He later started his own practice and was very successful – he loved his job and was proud of the evolution of a specialty that he had helped start. However, when managed care was first introduced in the United States, he was told by his largest insurance provider which insured 80% of his patients that he would have to accept a 50% cut in payments or they would no longer allow specimens to be sent to his lab. My dad understood that in doing so, he was telling the insurance companies that it was okay for them to dictate how his business was run, and that was something that went against his value system. He told them no, and was promptly thrown out of the network. As a result, his practice almost went under and it took him years to rebuild it. But he did it. 

So maybe this isn’t the best example of a personal code of ethics bringing about a stellar result, but that’s not the point: it’s about having principles and sticking to them no matter what. Regardless, there are clear advantages to defining your personal code of ethics. When you are in a morally unsure situation like my father was, having a code of ethics founded on personal beliefs can provide guidance to steer you toward an action or opinion that aligns with what you believe on a fundamental level. A code of ethics reinforces your individual values, providing clarity and strength to follow through on the path you believe is best. 

Defining your personal ethics can help you find a career path that brings you fulfillment. If spending quality time with family is a part of your value system, then it is important that you find a job that allows you to do so. If you prioritize putting others’ needs first you will likely be happy in a job where you help people. If high productivity and results are a priority, you may make a good business leader. Conversely, your code of ethics can also help identify what jobs you should avoid. For example, if you are someone who prioritizes collaboration, working at a company that encourages cutthroat competition may not be the right fit for you. By having a clear understanding of your priorities, you can determine what type of job is best for you, and what jobs you should avoid because of conflicts with your personal ethics. 

Having a code of personal ethics also helps in the decision-making process. Life is complicated, and we often find ourselves forced to make difficult decisions. Knowing your own moral values can provide clarity as the correct path for you, and provide you with confidence in your choice regardless of the outcome. My father’s decision was difficult and had the potential to ruin his career, but he was confident that regardless of the outcome he would be operating with integrity. Similarly, it was certainly dangerous and perhaps foolhardy of me to jump off that bridge, but within a split-second I was able to make the decision to do it because I believed it was the right thing to do. Using your code of ethics within your career, you can establish yourself as a decisive person who can be turned to when options need to be weighed. 

Finally, once you have a clear set of personal ethics you can improve your goal-setting within your life and career. In knowing what drives you forward, you can identify goals for yourself that will bring you personal fulfillment and identify opportunities and future steps you should pursue. Additionally, a strong set of personal ethics will naturally make you a better leader. You must have a good sense of your own personal ethics in order to inspire those around you and lead them to success. Below are some tips and steps that can be taken for identifying what matters to you most and turning that into a concrete code of ethics. 

Determine your purpose

The first step in understanding your code of ethics is to sit down and think about why you are establishing them in the first place. What are the personal reasons you have for developing them? Is it because you want to be more decisive in your life? Is it because you want a guide for your behavior in day-to-day situations? Or maybe you are looking for inspiration that helps you embody the kind of person you want to me. For me, I initially sought to develop my personal code of ethics because I believe it is an imperative step for any doctor to take when establishing their own practice. Understanding your individual reasons will help you shape your code of ethics, creating a set of principles tailored to your life, beliefs and needs.

Make a list of your traits

What makes you who you are? In order to build a code of ethics, you need to know yourself and what makes you unique. Try to be impartial and accurate in your assessment of yourself, including any personal traits or characteristics that feel correct. Are you kind, but have a quick temper? Serious and honest? Witty with a tendency toward shyness in new situations? Try to be realistic but fair with yourself, and when you’re done take a look at the list and ask yourself if the people you are close to would agree with your assessment. By identifying who you are as a person, you can bypass more generalized ideas for your code of ethics and come up with one that is honest and tailored to you. 

Look at who you admire

I’ll tell you another story about my father. When I was ten years old the sewer line backed up at our house. A plumber was called, but when he arrived my dad promptly rolled up his sleeves and dove in to help him with the messy problem. After they were done, the plumber told me never in his fifteen years of work had a doctor offered to help him, and that my dad was a great man. 

I’ve always looked up to my father, and he remains one of the most influential people in my life. For me, in developing my own personal set of ethics, I took a lot of influence from my admiration of him. When looking to originate your own, think about the people you look up to and what it is about them that makes you admire them. This could be people you know, but it could also be historical figures such as Nelson Mandela and his strong sense of vision or the selflessness of Mother Teresa. You aren’t even limited to real people – fictional characters can provide just as much influence, such as Elizabeth Bennet’s spirited nature or Harry Potter’s unyielding loyalty and bravery. At the end of the day, extraordinary people can be a good indicator of the kind of values you want to embody in your everyday life. 

Clarify your why

While defining your own moral code and values is a central part of the process, equally as important is clarifying why you have chosen the ethical principles that you have. Your ethical code is a direct result of what you have experienced in your life, and it becomes much easier to follow once you have come to understand what has shaped you as a person. Take some time to sit down and think about the things we have discussed previously – your traits, the people you admire, etc. – and why they mean what they do to you. That way, when you’re careening fifteen feet off of a bridge into icy water below, you are not thinking to yourself “why the heck am I doing this?” You know exactly why your code of ethics means what it does to you, and why these guiding principles are ones that you won’t waver in following. 

Write it down

It can feel corny, but writing out everything we’ve discussed and coming up with a clear, defined personal code of ethics statement is essential to the process. Start with a freeform jot of everything we have discussed previously: your purpose, your beliefs and practices, the people you admire, and why all of these have come to be a part of you. Next, use all of these to develop clear guidelines or rules that you intend to follow as you move throughout your life. How you will conduct yourself in the workplace, how you will interact with others, and what goals you have for your life are just a few examples of guidelines you can create for yourself. Finally, turn these guidelines into strong statements that can serve as a guide for what sorts of actions you will take to meet your own expectations. As an example, here is my own: 

I will act toward the benefit of others in both my personal and professional life. It is important to me to have a positive impact on the people I come into contact with. It may be difficult to perform some actions, as they may not produce the most desirable outcomes for me, but my decisions will be made based upon my own virtues and self-imposed rules rather than fear of consequences.

These are the guidelines to which I turn in making every decision in my life. At first, it can be helpful to have your code of ethics written down somewhere easily accessible so you can turn to them when you need reminding, but eventually you will come to find that they have become engraved in your mind. The next step is putting these words into action. Remember, you may have written them down, but it is up to you to continue to hold yourself to them in every aspect of your life.

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