Professional Ethics

Dr. William Gardner, CHEO Research Institute (see contributed an interesting blog post on the Institute for Research on Public Policy website commenting on professional ethics by referencing a scandal at the American Psychological Association (APA). The issue cited revolves around collusion between APA leadership and the US Department of Defense to, “create a space of ethical ambiguity that sanctioned American psychologists who participated in the torture of prisoners during the war on terror”. The evidence focused on crossing an ethical line - psychologists may interrogate but not torture.

While the impact may not match Gardner’s example, any breach of professional ethics can result in exponential reputation damage to any field of practice.

Certified Management Consultants also have ethical boundaries as carefully articulated in our Code of Professional Conduct. Are we guilty of crossing these lines? Draw your own conclusions from some of these scenarios:

  • Failure to disclose that there is a commission should a product or service be offered to members (Responsibility to the Client);
  • Insisting on a change to services offered by the Association without a supportive business case and/or disclosure of potential changes in policy or assumption of financial obligations (Responsibility to the Client);
  • Sole source contracting of a member for the benefit of members (Responsibility to the Client and perhaps Responsibility to the Profession);
  • Representing CMC-Canada without knowledge or permission of the Board (Responsibility to the Public)
  • Negative or disparaging remarks about colleagues or the Association (Responsibility to the Profession);
  • Personal (negative) character assessments (Responsibilities to the Profession);
  • Highly critical remarks about colleagues who are working on an initiative for the Association (Responsibility to the Profession);
  • Transgressions related to independence in client-consulting relationships (Responsibilities to the Client);
  • Failure to maintain the confidentiality of client-related information (Responsibilities to the Client).

The majority of these types of incidents do not make the papers, but occasionally they do - especially if conflict of interest and politics are involved. Whether singly or in combination, the outcome is a tarnished image of our profession – and that affects us all.

While certainly not as egregious as the issue cited above at the APA, these examples have two effects when taken collectively – 1) They are all in the grey zone of ethical conduct and thus should be managed fairly and transparently and 2) They erode the will and motivation of client communities, stakeholders and volunteers. Trust and brand reputation of a profession can disappear quickly if there is a perceived pattern of unethical behaviour.

Rather than debate what is acceptable and what is not, we rely on a code and it’s interpretation on a case-by-case basis such as would be possible in an organization or where the designation is a right to practice. In these circumstances, there are serious potential consequences of an adverse opinion to a member found to have violated the Code of Professional Conduct. Our approach is a traditional compliance based model (external controls) but we do not have a governance structure that enables strong enforcement strategies. We respond to a perceived violation through a formal complaints process.

What is the alternative? At the extreme, proponents of modern management refer to a values-driven best practice (inner controls) that features self-control by members of a workforce or community who have internalized values and also have the capacity for moral decision-making and action. Simply put, when applied to CMC-Canada, all of us share responsibility for creating an environment that promotes and enables good conduct.  Amongst the ranks of our long-term, accomplished professionals there are some strong models of this quality.

A tangible output of this philosophy is creation of an integrity strategy or framework that strives to look at all aspects of an organization through an integrity lens – leadership, human resource management, culture, automation, regulation, transparency, audit, code of conduct and relationships with other sectors. The logic is that integrity is the foundation of good governance, and good governance enables ethical behaviour and ethical behaviour fosters trust.

As is the case with many best practices, a balanced application of compliance and values makes the most sense. Our orientation as a profession has been compliance based, I wonder if we could strengthen the ethical foundation and value of the designation through promoting and constantly reinforcing a positive set of attitudes for ourselves, which fosters honest and ethical behaviour, and work practices.