Ethics: A Practitioner’s Life on the Edge

Posted: 28/11/2017

Anyone who works with people faces a barrage of ethical decisions every day.

All decisions by human services practitioners are taken within the context of values and ethics. Professional bodies and human service organisations generally have codes of conduct that may include ethical principles and standards, and policies and principles of professional practice. While many decisions practitioners make will clearly fall within these boundaries, many will be less clear cut. Each profession and workplace will have some significant conflicts of interest that the practitioner has to negotiate. These conflicts of interest give rise to dilemmas for which there may not be any agreed recipes.

The lived experience of any human service worker is likely to include an awareness of constantly walking the boundaries…

Social work, for example, puts high value on self-determination yet also has a social control function. Client agency at times will conflict with the rights of others in their environment. Wanting the best for a client has to be negotiated within limited budgets and expenditure priorities. Client confidentiality is challenged by assessments of risk. Privacy is also challenged by other things such as location—for example, privacy is much more difficult to maintain in rural situations than in large cities – but nowadays that too is changing with the advent of social media.

Codes of conduct are important as are case-studies that allow ethical principles to be tested. But there is a multitude of ‘small’ decisions that practitioners have to negotiate every day that are arguable; they sit on the boundary between ethical and non-ethical decisions. And there is not always agreement amongst practitioners about what constitutes appropriate behaviour or response by the practitioner.

Walking the Boundaries simply postulates 80 of these ‘everyday dilemmas’ that rarely will have black and white answers. How these dilemmas are viewed depends upon understanding the codes of conduct that are relevant, the actual role one is in, and numerous other variables including culture and geography.

Our human service professions, employing organisations, professional socialisation, peers and supervisory relationships all provide maps that guide ethical conduct, whether or not these guidelines are explicitly articulated in codes of conduct. However, to quote one of the mantras of practice in a post-modern world, ‘The map is not the territory’. While each map can describe the prominent features of the typography (the clearer dos and don’ts and traps for the unwary), the territory that each of us has to transverse can be riddled with ambiguities and little tests that have the capacity to trip us up.

The lived experience of any human service worker is likely to include an awareness of constantly walking on the boundaries; having to think through a myriad of potential pitfalls and mineshafts—any one of which has the capacity to cause profound distress to ourselves, our colleagues, and those we walk alongside.

  • Do we acknowledge a client when we accidently meet them in the street or at a social event?
  • How do we answer questions about our families such as do we have children?
  • What do we say about ourselves on social media?
  • Do we publicly advocate for political causes or social movements?

Professional codes of conduct attempt to elaborate the vital principle of ‘do no harm’. But any of the above four sample questions could be answered in radically different ways by different individuals in the strongest possible belief that no harm is being done.

Walking the Boundaries of ethical dilemmas is not just about protecting ourselves as practitioners from liability and litigation. Nor is it even just about ‘doing no harm’ to clients. Interrogating, reflecting, openly sharing, inviting feedback and being able to articulate and defend our values and ethical stances is more than clothing ourselves in professional armor. It is more than an afterthought or an appendix to notions of good practice. It is the essence of respectful practice.

From Walking the Boundaries booklet and card set 2015, St Luke’s Innovative Resources

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