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Ethical codes and the spirit of codes for professional bodies

A professional association’s code of conduct is an essential mark of its intention for its members to be regarded as professionals. Adherence to an ethical code has for many years been regarded as synonymous with professionalism, along with requiring  a qualification or period of experience and more recently the need to  undertake continuing professional development, part of which can relate to the code.

Professionals must not only be aware of their code of conduct and agree to abide by it, they must also understand the spirit of the code, to be able to use the code in practice.

The Professional Association for Childcare and Early Years (PACEY) has an ethical code, as do almost all professional bodies. In a survey of 110 professional bodies in the UK carried out in 2006, 94% reported that their members operate under an ethical code which sets expected standards of professional behaviour.

Professionals must adhere to ethical standards beyond what would be expected of ordinary citizens because of the vulnerable position of clients/patients and the subjects professionals deal with. This is due in part to the expert knowledge professionals have which is beyond what those receiving their services have, but in the case of childcare professionals, it is particularly so because of the vulnerability of children.

There is another important role the ethical code plays. As a newly professionalising occupation, such as those taking responsibility for childcare in many different settings, a body of knowledge develops which will come to define, at least in part, the criteria for entry into the profession.

Experts who have mastered this body of knowledge in combination with experience, emerge. However there has always been a danger of professional expertise being mistaken as the sole defining mark of a professional. The code is a critical support for what marks professionals from mere experts: that is, ethical competence. Professionals exercise their expertise under the guidance of an ethical code.

They forbear from exercising expertise when it is not ethically appropriate to do so, guided by the code. Professionals must therefore be aware of the code and understand the ‘spirit’ of the code.

To achieve this, individual professionals and their respective professional association must jointly become proactive. Professional associations need to provide guidance on how to interpret the code. In part this can be in the form of a guidance document or sub-clauses in the code.

In addition cases of ethical dilemmas for individual professionals to reflect upon can be useful, both in publications of the professional association and as part of available CPD activities.

Of course the individual professionals must take up these opportunities and think through the consequences of actions in the light of the code.  For example, there are ethical dilemmas where one must choose among obligations and to whom obligations are owed. One must prioritise.

Fifty years ago professional codes were almost exclusively concerned with defining obligations to clients/patients and with regulating competition among professionals. Nowadays most codes contain a wide range of stakeholders to whom obligations are owed.  In our survey of 92 UK professional bodies in 2012/13, 88% reported their codes mentioned duties to people other than clients/patients.

Children are specifically stated as those to whom primary obligations are owed in the PACEY code. Obligations to others are mentioned in several places as a general category, but who those others are is not specified, for example:

  • Honesty – being truthful, straightforward and sincere in my dealings with others.
  • Objectivity – fairness to all parties and not taking sides.
  • Respectfulness – valuing others views, beliefs and behaviour.

It may be that one cannot be fair to all parties one deals with: parents of children, guardians, colleagues, employers, quality assurance agencies as well as the children. In most instances it is clear to whom the primary obligation is owed.  According to the first statement of the code; The welfare of the child is paramount.  This is echoed in the obligation on:

Confidentiality – not disclosing personal information to a third party, except where it is in the interests of children in my care.

In other cases the code is less clear by itself and needs to be supplemented with further reflection and/or guidance, such as when the interests of different children conflict, or obligations to different ‘others than children’ conflict. Reflecting on these issues will help you to understand the nature of ethical competence as a childcare professional.

The ethical code is an essential component to professionalism and must infuse professional practice. It helps to distinguish professionals from mere experts as being ethically competent. However awareness of the code is not enough, the code must be reflected upon and consulted to guide practice, particularly when confronted by ethical dilemmas. For this the spirit of the code needs to be instilled. This is a joint responsibility of professionals and their respective associations.

  • What ethical dilemmas have you faced?
  • Have you consulted the code in these situations?
  • Has the code helped you to deal with the dilemmas you have faced, as well as other concerns you have had in practice situations?
  • If not, what more do you think PACEY can do to support you?

About Andy Friedman
Professor Andy Friedman is the CEO of the Professional Associations Research Network (PARN), a non-profit membership organisation for professional bodies, offering expertise, experience and perspective on key issues in the sector through research, consultancy, networking, events and training.
Through PARN, Andy has carried out research projects and written books on membership, CPD, governance, ethics and regulation and has also been widely published in academic journals.
He is also Professor of Management and Economics in the Department of Management at the University of Bristol, where he has taught since 1974. Andy is originally from Canada, but has lived in England since 1970.

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