Professional Association Code of Ethics: Research summary and opportunities analysis

Overview

Ethilogical has conducted research with several member-based Professional Associations regarding the state and application of their Codes of Ethics or equivalent codes.

Such codes are common among such organisations and serve as a core service – identifying members as both upholding a higher standard of practice and also accountable to those standards. In theory this provides a powerful guarantee to both members and their clients, however in practice these Codes rarely appear to deliver on their intended purpose.

Ethilogical seeks to understand what determines the success or failure of such codes and key opportunities for improvement.

Key research questions

  1. What is the objective of a Code of Ethics?
  2. Do these Codes represent a high quality of professional ethics?
  3. How are these systems implemented in a practical way to guide members?
  4. Has implementation of these systems lead to positive results for both Associations and their members?
  5. How can the outcomes of these systems be improved for all parties?

Findings

1. What is the objective of a Code of Ethics?

Our research identified a number of commonalities between the Codes we reviewed. The Codes were generally established during the creation of each Association itself, developed by founding members and through consultation with other senior practitioners. The majority Codes we reviewed combined a set of positive values to be upheld and negative qualities to avoid and were largely employed in three contexts;

  • New member induction – training and resources provided to introduce new members to the Code
  • Member certification – interviews or exams of members seeking to obtain or upgrade certification by peers
  • Collaborative discussion – formal or informal discussion of ethical challenges faced at conferences or other industry events
  • Enforcement – An implication that failure to comply with the code may result in disciplinary action

Each Association’s stated purpose of the Code varied depending on the nature of their field, however the overall theme was consistent; the Code of Ethics purpose was seen as guiding member behaviour in

order to uphold the quality of the profession and its practitioners. This in turn was viewed as contributing the success of the profession by building trust with clients, government and the public.

2. Do these Codes represent a high quality of professional ethics?

From an ethics perspective, all reviewed Codes were Deontological in nature –a strict system of rules. Such systems have the advantage of providing clear, measurable, easily communicable and easily enforced standards, but are usually limited in their ability to deal with highly complex, ‘morally grey’ situations. These limitations can be overcome provided the Code is contextualised – demonstrations provided of how the Code works in specific practical situations that professionals are likely to encounter.

However, our research found that such practical contextualisation was not in place for the vast majority of Associations we approached. This in turn lead to ambiguity regarding what specifically was intended by many of the clauses of each Code, uncertainty over what it demanded of members, and disinclination to refer to, or apply the Code for fear of making an error – this latter concern in particular appeared to be common to every Association and member we met with. In summary, most do not represent high quality Codes of professional Ethics

3. How are these systems implemented in a practical way to guide members?

Virtually all Codes provided for the expulsion of members who violated the Code. This mechanism was seen as crucial to upholding the purpose of the Code; ensuring quality of the profession and confidence to external stakeholders by ensuring seriously unethical behaviour would result in loss of membership. However through our research it became clear that it is exceptionally rare that these expulsion mechanisms have ever been used over the lifetime of the Association.

While it is possible that there has simply never been cause for such action, our review of the various scandals and criminal proceedings within each respective profession indicates this is not the case. Several common reasons have been identified for this lack of enforcement:

  • A simple lack of awareness that the Code exists and can be used for this purpose.
  • The precise standards of behaviour outlined in the Code are rarely defined, allowing for significant room for interpretation – in practice Associations usually interpret these generously, minimising cause for enforcement.
  • While the Codes allow for expulsion they rarely offer investigative or disciplinary options, meaning that successful application of the Code can only result in complete loss of membership; a response seen as overly harsh in many circumstances.
  • Both members and Association administrative staff lack sufficient background in the field of ethics to comfortably interpret and apply the Code, and lack knowledge of external resources they could refer to for help (as opposed to legal issues, for which numerous resources are easily accessible).

4. Has implementation of these systems lead to positive results for both Associations and their members?

The success of the Codes we reviewed varied significantly, and hinged heavily on how relevant the Code was considered by each Association’s membership. Our research indicates that relevance was determined by a number of factors:

  • Awareness of the Code.
  • Clear understanding of what the Code requires of members.
  • Whether the Code was considered useful in dealing with real-world practical challenges.
  • Whether any benefits or consequences were seen from following/ignoring the Code, respectively.

The exceptional Codes of Ethics which were most effective in achieving their stated purpose, built substantial practical mechanisms around the Code, making it clear how it actually applies to members’ professional work and why it would be beneficial to members to adhere to it. Successful Codes provided dedicated training on the use of the Code, provided a clear process for enforcement and appeal if the Code was breached, and offered members advice if they experienced an ethical challenge.

However, even the most successful Codes we reviewed only extended to offering advice to members; where a member experienced an ethical challenge or faced pressure to break the principles of the Code, no service was supplied either to proactively assist the member, nor to provide them with support to ensure their integrity was preserved. Lacking such support, members in such circumstances are left to either bend to the pressure and break the Code’s stipulations, or else confront those pressuring them alone, which may result in significant professional consequence. This in turn incentivises breaking the Code and simply hiding said infractions, which is a poor outcome for the member, Association and profession involved.

Identified opportunities

5. How can the outcomes of these systems be improved for all parties?

Based on the findings discussed above, Ethilogical Consulting has identified a number of opportunities for Professional Associations to enhance the function and outcomes of their Codes:

·       Code overhaul

While a Code of Ethics is limited in scope by its nature, many of the Codes we reviewed through this research showed simple problems which severely inhibited their function; undefined key terms, vague wording, logical inconsistencies and even contradictory clauses greatly undermine comprehension and successful application of a Code and its contribution towards the profession’s success. A review and revision of the Code can overcome these problems and improve its effectiveness.

·       Practice notes

By contextualising the principles of the Code in both hypothetical scenarios and real-world case studies, practice notes will greatly assist in ensuring members both understand how the Code is intended to work in practice, and appreciate its value to them in their day-to-day work.

·       Training integration

Ethical principles like those enshrined in a Code are fundamental to how professionals conduct themselves and how they approach their technical work. While dedicated training on the Code of Ethics is valuable, integration of ethical principles and decision-making methods into the broader training and

professional development programs the Association runs will result in a far more successful uptake of the Code.

·       Capacity building for Advice and Assistance

To maximise its success the Code of Ethics should be seen as an asset to members, not merely as a punishment for poor behaviour. This requires the relevant Association to offer active support to members facing ethical challenges, both in terms of confidence advice on what the Code requires, and support to help members overcome external pressure they may face to break the Code. A train-the-trainer program will equip administrative staff of the Association with the capacity to provide these services confidently, as well as knowledge of external services they can refer to in serious or unusual cases – much as they currently do for legal matters a member may face.

·       Preventative engagement

No profession operates in a vacuum; social, economic, technological and political contexts are constantly changing and posing new, and often unprecedented challenges to professionals in every field. By proactively establishing consultative processes and research programs, Professional Associations can stay on the cutting edge of these developments, anticipating the challenges they will pose to their members and ensuring that they can provide the best possible assistance and advice.

·       Defining Disciplinary processes

For the confidence of both members and the Association the Code should ensure any disciplinary processes are well documented, including; how a claim of breach of the Code is documented and lodged, how a review panel is formed, decisions the panel can make, and how confidentiality and any conflict of interests of all parties are managed. Accountability and transparency measures should be employed to ensure the legitimacy of the review panel is preserved at all times.

Next steps

Ethilogical Consulting employs ethical frameworks and decision-making methodologies to help professionals understand and effectively address the challenges they face in their work.

If you would like to discuss the findings of this research in greater detail, how it applies to your Association specifically, and what potential solutions could be developed to maximise benefit to your members, contact us at gordon@ethilogical.com

 

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