What’s the Difference Between Ethics and Integrity?

What’s the Difference Between Ethics and Integrity? December 19, 2010

Every few months I am asked to address the High Potential Leaders’ group in our company, to share with them my vast wealth of leadership experience and business acumen.

Actually, the HR Director just asked me to tell them a little bit about my job.

Anyway, after I finished my most recent presentation to these ambitious up and comers, a strapping young man approached me and, out of the blue, asked, “What is the difference between ethics and integrity?”

I wondered if it was a trick question, and looked around for the hidden video camera that was set up to test me.

Apparently this had been a point of discussion earlier that morning, before I arrived, and there was an assignment to explore the subject in more depth. He wanted to see if my on-the-spot answer lined up with what the CEO had told them as part of their lesson that day.

After thinking about it for a moment, I answered with this: “Ethics is about following the rules, and integrity is about doing the right thing, regardless of the rules.”

I’m no expert, but this is just what came to mind.

“So you’re telling me someone could be ethical, but not have integrity?” he asked.

“Sure,” I replied. “Plenty of people are just trying to stay out of trouble, only because the rules have been spelled out for them. That doesn’t mean they wouldn’t charge ahead with those same behaviors if they were not prohibited. Integrity comes from a greater depth of character.”

He reclined back in his chair, seeming pleased with my answer. It synched up pretty close, I guess, with what the Big Guy had said earlier.


I suppose there is more to it than that, and if I wanted, I could do more research and consultation with the academic experts to explain it more completely. But lucky for me, I am not part of the High Potential Leaders’ group.

Marble photo by Nance Marie, used with permish.

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  • Katdish

    I think you pretty much covered it, Brad.

  • Short, simple, clear.

    Why *aren’t* you part of the High Potential Leaders’ group?

    • Well, uh, how should I put this? I am somewhat graduated from that group since I am already an officer in the company. These are the folks that would want my job some day. (My high potential is all run out, I guess!)

  • All of us can be ethical; it is, as you point out, a relatively straightforward way of obeying the rules. Integrity, though, is something else again, and it always sets people who have it apart. Integrity is both doing the right thing and being the right thing.

  • I think integrity is built and earned over time. It’s how people know they can rely on you…based on your ethics, but also on your reputation, responsibility, loyalty, and fairness. You can’t really take integrity with you unless you have awesome pr/self marketing. I think you can do a pretty good job of spreading and encouraging an atmosphere of integrity. I also know it’s a big wide gaping black hole when a group of people work with no ethics or integrity.

    • Yes, it’s like Stephen Covey talks about the bank account – you are making investments in it every day, and the minute you screw up, or breach someone’s trust, you are taking a huge withdrawl. Good point, Robin. Also, I agree that the leader can set the tone and the standard, but mostly as an example for integrity in a team setting.

  • “Ethics is about following the rules, and integrity is about doing the right thing, regardless of the rule”

    I’ve never thought about the two, just lumping them together in the category of just trying to be righteous.

    But you are right. i work with some people who just go through the motions of ‘following the rules’, but are not righteous. It’s a thorough process that you wisely divided.

  • so…

    it sounds like,

    ethics is what one thinks when one sees that others are watching,

    and inte-grity is what one thinks when one believes that God is watching.

  • btw…permish…that gave me a grin.

  • It’s so true.

  • Ethics is your personal, moral system of beliefs….and Integrity is your ability to adhere to your system of beliefs…

  • I like the distinction, and agree that integrity is about character, while the common view of ethics is more about behavior. Having said that, most Christian writers talk about ethics in a richer way that typically includes both. The Theology of Work project (a multi-year project led by Haddon Robinson that is writing book-by-book on what the Bible has to say about work, and also includes a number of special topics) has an article on ethics:


    The author speaks of three elements of Biblical ethics:

    1.Command — What do the rules say is the right way to act?

    2.Consequences — What actions are most likely to bring about the best outcome?

    3.Character — What kind of moral character do I want to be or become?

    There’s lots more – worth reading if you have the time (as is the whole project to date).

    • Yes, I am familiar with those folks at TOW. There building an entirely new reference library on the subject, it sounds like. Thanks for the link, Graham.

  • Great question, and a great answer!

  • Anna

    Yes, great distinction!

    It’s snowing on your blog. I saw flurries when I was reading this post last night and initially thought there was something wrong with my eyes… 🙂

  • I think there might be more to it, as you say, but I like the way you’ve defined the basics. I took an ethics course in grad school (your wife can tell you that psychology is VERY strict on ethics) but never was the word “integrity” mentioned. A pretty big oversight, don’t you think?

    Merry Christmas, Bradley. Enjoy those Gingerbread houses–just the thought makes me smile. The boys still love making sugar cookies and I plan on keeping that tradition as long as possible.

    Love to you and yours,


  • I agree. I think that ethics has been set up as the standard, when the standard should probably be integrity. I really like the way you’ve described it here. And without really having to think about it. Which makes me think that it’s just the way you function. And why you’ve “graduated” from the High Potential Leaders’ group.

    Merry Christmas!