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

 

‘Cripping-up’ – disability blackface?

While social justice issues such as gender, racial and most recently sexuality equality are well established conversations in Australian society, the discussion around disabled rights is significantly less developed.

Significant progress has certainly been made from the days when the disabled were considered lost causes, or even targets for racial ‘cleansing’. Public awareness has advanced to the point where most are aware that people suffering from disabilities are simply people living with a condition, and deserve to have their particular needs respected and addressed.

However, the national understanding of the issue remains rather simplistic, meaning that we struggle to discuss more nuanced question when they arise; questions such as how disabilities should be portrayed on film and stage.

Intellectually disability has long been a powerful trope for writers and directors seeking pathos or drama in their productions. Films such as Forest Gump and Rain Man achieved wide success from the concept. However, in virtually every instance one factor remains constant – the disabled are cast as able-bodied actors rather than actors with the disabilities being portrayed. Many in the disabled community have come to describe this practice as ‘cripping-up’.

On the face of it this may seem a simple necessity; intellectual disabilities by their very nature tend to decrease an individual’s ability to participate in something as complex, intense and long-winded as the production of a film or stage play. Surely attempting to cast an actor with the disability being portrayed would practical impossible to manage, not to mention the relative scarcity of such actors?

However, this response demonstrates the immaturity of the conversation about disabled rights, making broad assumptions about a diverse range of individuals with varying severity of conditions. While the general logic of the statement may seem sound, it ignores the fact that there are numerous disabled actors active already, such as the professional company Back to Back based in Geelong. Surely if a director was seeking an actor to play a disabled character, their first port of call should be companies like this?

But this in turn raises the spectre of affirmative action and the accusation that such practices prioritise an individual’s nature over their actual merit to complete the job – disabled actors may indeed exist, but if an able-bodied person is better able to portray the character, then surely it would be condescending to give it to the disabled actors purely because of their condition?

Quite apart from the subjectivity surrounding whether an actor plays a part ‘better’ than another, consider if we were to run that scenario through other social debates; casting a white person as a black character for example.

If any director was to attempt this they would correctly be accused of conducting black-face – the disempowerment of a historically persecuted minority, by a powerful majority which could never hope to understand the suffering circumstance and society has imposed upon them. A description which also happens to perfectly fit the disabled community.

This is not to suggest that the portrayals of the disabled by able-bodied actors have always been demeaning, in fact films like Forrest Gump in particular tend to show it as a pseudo-superpower. However, if we are to continue the progress achieved on topics such as race, gender and sexuality, the national conversation about justice for the disabled must mature beyond the simple avoidance of direct harm, and instead address the question of empowerment. And one very significant step towards this would be giving disabled people control over the way in which they are portrayed in the public eye.

Case studies wanted

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Ethilogical is looking for partners to develop case studies showcasing businesses excelling in ethical performance.

Does you organisation hold itself to high standards, employ effective accountability mechanisms, and/or hold a strong commitment to client and employee consultation? If so then Ethilogical would like to discuss the development of a case study demonstrating your leadership.

This process involves a 30 minute interview with an appropriate representative regarding the nature of the ethical ideals employed, the mechanisms used to implement these ethics, and any risks/barriers/opportunities for improvement that may exist.

A two-page case study will then be developed based on the conversation and a brief analysis of the ethics and mechanisms based on the information provided, noting their benefits and limitations from both a principled and applied perspective. This offers participating organisations a specialist review of their current practices and provide prompts for future improvement you could consider.

All information gained from the interview would be treated with strict confidentiality pending approval by participating organisation for public distribution.

The intention of these case studies is to help capture current ethical best-practices in the field, to demonstrate the value of professional ethics in a business context to other organisations. While a critical analysis will be provided, this will be purely constructive in nature, demonstrating opportunities for continual improvement rather than criticising the current efforts of any organisation.

If you wish to participate or learn more, contact us at gordon@ethilogical.com or on +61 0403 591 045.

Intellectual Cowardice: the Benefits and Risks of Trigger Warnings

Published by The Ethics Centre as part of their IQ2 Debate series.

Gordon Young – Principal, Ethilogical Consulting

http://www.ethics.org.au/on-ethics/blog/march-2017/trigger-warnings-can-work-here%E2%80%99s-how

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Trigger warnings are one of the most fiercely contested concepts in the great ‘political correctness’ debate. Trigger warnings demand audiences be warned of content and ideas that may be traumatic. Their proponents aim to protect the vulnerable from harm and exclusion. Detractors describe them as ‘coddling the mind’ and as being a form of censorship.

The debate has largely been unfolding at universities, where the stakes and the ferocity are greatly amplified. Today, universities worldwide are confronted by student groups demanding lecturers provide warnings before discussing any topic that could conceivably traumatise a student.

Examples range from “racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism and other issues of privilege and oppression”. Others have included seemingly more benign issues like “calories in a food item”.

On the face of it, this seems like an absurd burden to place on educators. A full list would cover virtually every topic, making nearly any class a minefield of trauma. However, with some claiming up to 50 percent of students have some history of trauma, it’s important to consider whether warnings could help them manage. If they could, surely avoiding harm justifies the extra work for academic staff?

If only it were so simple.

Universities are where the professionals and leaders of tomorrow are shaped. Control over the language used in such places influences what ideas and ideals are conveyed. As a result, the simple question of trigger warnings is seen by many as nothing less than a battle for the future of politics itself.

This is explains why criticism of trigger warnings includes that they exist to censor ‘politically incorrect’ ideas. But while the suppression of speech is indeed a factor in political correctness, it simply doesn’t apply to trigger warnings.

Such warnings are just that: warnings. They’re provided to audiences to allow them to make informed decisions, just like content advice and ratings for movies, television and radio. Given these kinds of warnings are so common and unobtrusive – not to mention the vast volume of offensive content still available despite them – the risk of outright censorship seems low.

However, this suggests the possibility of another kind of censorship: instead of controlling ideas, perhaps trigger warnings allow people to control language itself. Some students are already using trigger warnings to police the language used by academics – interrupting lectures to express their disagreement with certain terms. This behavior is enabled by the culture set by trigger warnings and can lead to significant disruption of the learning experience.

Many critics of trigger warnings see this as a suppression of the kind of intellectual debate universities are designed for. They argue this cost is too great justify, even if it does mean giving up the mental health benefits some may gain.

This assessment ignores a pretty fundamental reality of universities: academics have vastly more power than students. Teachers can remove troublesome students from classes or exams if they find them overly disruptive. In this context, students policing the language of their significantly more powerful teachers may be viewed as a way for the powerless to keep check on the powerful.

It may indeed be disruptive and obnoxious but if anything, trigger warnings will promote debate by giving students a basis to criticise their teachers. If academics don’t like it then they can simply boot the offending student out of the room – ironically, an act of severe censorship that no one appears to be objecting to.

A more compelling argument against trigger warnings is the risk of echo chambers. Some students may use these warnings, meant for dealing with trauma, to instead avoid content they disagree with or find offensive. Such behavior would create similar confirmation biases to online echo chambers, inhibiting learning and constructive debate where more than view is explored.

However, the risk of echo chambers already exists. If students want to avoid material they don’t like, they can make an assessment of which courses to enroll in based on subject titles or course descriptions. It’s unclear whether trigger warnings would heighten the risk of being exposed to few worldviews though it is true they could be used for this purpose.

Of course, this assumes the phrasing of the trigger warnings is neutral. They should be designed only to provide information rather than using loaded terms that ‘prime’ students to take offense. For example, ‘discussions of obesity’ would be a neutral warning, whereas ‘fat-shaming’ is not. It implies the class takes a negative attitude to weight and the views are incorrect or bigoted when neither is necessarily true.

Value laden trigger warnings greatly exacerbate the threat of confirmation bias. Students risk forming prejudicial opinions on the content of specific, negatively labelled classes. This is likely to bias them against the content regardless of its validity, further enhancing the echo chamber effect.

The free speech argument isn’t the only criticism of trigger warnings. Some commentators argue trigger warnings areharmful to student mental health. In a controversial article in The Atlantic, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt note a key part of treatment for trauma is exposure therapy. People are given a safe environment to confront the ‘triggering’ material and eventually break the association between the trigger and their initial trauma. How can someone overcome trauma if they continually avoid their triggers?

While intuitively appealing, this essentially suggests victims of trauma should be exposed to triggers by staff who are not trained to assist them through the process rather than being informed in a way that allows them to manage their own mental health. And while this seems totally irresponsible, it does raise a good point: trigger warnings must not replace treatment.

Any student who legitimately requires trigger warnings also requires psychological treatment. Trigger warnings may assist them to manage trauma but this is not a license to accept or normalise their conditions. Sadly, mental healthcare continues to suffer from a cultural stigma in most communities and is difficult to access for many.

Trigger warnings can help bridge this gap but ultimately focus should be placed on addressing the trauma at the source of the problem rather than playing whack-a-mole with the various symptoms.

JOIN THE DEBATE: Hear some of Australia’s best thinkers at The Ethics Centre’s 2017 IQ2 debate series. Tickets on sale now.