I entered a helping profession to help individuals and their families create better lives for themselves. I expected to act ethically with knowledge of and adherence to the Code of Ethics and Canadian Standards and Guidelines for Career Development Practitioners. Soon after, I witnessed a respected colleague telling an amusing story about a client at a dinner party. I froze. What do I do? This situation was not covered in this code, and I became aware of the implications of a person’s behaviour on clients, the profession and on the public that extended beyond knowledge of the code of ethics.
As helping professionals, we regularly encounter situations fraught with conflict and tension, ethical quandaries such as allocation of limited resources, professional incompetence, confidentiality and adequacy of informed consent. Additionally, disputes among stakeholders and other professionals about intervention strategies, resources, or who knows best or has the most power require sensitivity to ethical implications and the potential impacts of decisions on concerned parties. We must also be motivated to prioritize ethical responsibilities and be willing to take necessary action.
In this blog, I will present specific skills to recognize and engage in both critical and everyday ethical situations with confidence. This model represents a journey of the ethical practitioner from the initial recognition that a morally important situation exists to implementation of a justifiable action.
Components of moral behaviour
When an individual faces a moral decision, what provokes them to behave ethically or unethically? James Rest, a well-known cognitive-developmental researcher, developed a model of ethical behaviour that is based on the presumption that there are four steps in moral development that lead to ethical action (1984, 1986, 1994).
1. Ethical sensitivity
The first component is ethical sensitivity, which involves the skill or ability to interpret the reactions and feelings of others. More than that, ethical sensitivity is also the capacity to recognize the situation as one with implications for the welfare of others, feel and be moved by others, to identify with their distress, to be aware of how one’s action or inaction may affect them, and to assume a sense of responsibility or obligation.
In the situation above, if I had laughed or appreciated the humour of my colleague’s story, this would indicate I lacked ethical sensitivity and failed to consider the impact of the situation on the profession or the welfare of the client. Or, maybe prioritizing my own feelings of acceptance by being included in the dinner would also suggest a lack of sensitivity. These reactions would put my own welfare above my responsibility to address the situation.
Ethical sensitivity includes an awareness of alternative courses of action and how each option could affect all those involved, including the client, the client’s family, workplace colleagues and the profession. This requires empathy and role-taking skills, which allow us to imagine possible scenarios and potential consequences – essential for constructive ethical dialogue.
As professionals working in the counselling field, we may experience feelings of uncertainty and tension among competing loyalties to clients, clients’ family members, stakeholders and ourselves. This may lead to a variety of emotions, which may further affect our ethics response and challenge our personal motives. Thus, increasing our self-knowledge, capacity for critical reflection, and awareness of individual biases and assumptions can become important aspects of the development of ethical sensitivity.
2. Ethical reasoning
Rest’s second component of ethical behaviour is ethical reasoning. This is the thoughtful, deliberative judgment that should reflect knowledge of ethical principles, theories and professional codes. The goal is not to achieve certainty but to make a choice that is reasonable and prudent and which also integrates our emotional responses. We often have to undertake this reasoning quickly, without much deliberation, so we may initially only see one course of action.
3. Ethical motivation
Ethical motivation is the link between ethical judgment and action. Imagining situations where we may recognize an ethical issue and determine a justifiable course of action, but then decide not to act is not difficult. We may give priority to competing personal values. For example, I observe my manager missing appointments, taking long lunches which include alcohol and neglecting paperwork. I recognize this as an ethical dilemma because clients are at risk and I ask myself, “Will I choose to do what I know I should do?” There may be many competing values in this type of scenario including my desire to maintain my professional reputation, my need for a regular paycheck to feed my children or maintaining workplace harmony.
Cognitive dissonance may also play a role in ethical motivation. I may perceive myself as an upstanding, ethical professional but explain my manager’s recent behaviour as a result of his recent concussion and therefore rationalize his behaviour.
Research has shown that workplace culture plays a major role in ethical motivation. When a professional works in an environment that places a high value on professional ethics and supports consultation, social support and education, the capacity to do right is strengthened, while the opposite is true for an organizational culture that is hostile to ethical action.
4. Ethical action
Ethical action is the final component of the process. This can be termed as resoluteness to carry out the action to its conclusion. This requires compassion, integrity and conscientiousness. In the situation with my colleague at a dinner party, my ethical action could involve confronting my colleague with my concerns. However, at times, persevering with an ethical plan has a cost. For example, I may back down when my colleague responds with anger towards me. Ethical action is the responsibility of knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it.
The path of an ethical identity for helping professionals extends beyond knowledge of our code of ethics. We must also include ethical sensitivity, motivation and action. This journey demands our commitment to ongoing ethics training and education. It also requires us to develop an understanding of the factors that produce and sustain ethical practice. At the core, it requires that we appreciate the philosophical rationale and moral values that are the foundation of ethical standards.