Professional ethics codes: critical for accountability, but only if they can be enforced

August 13, 2021

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Professional ethics codes: critical for accountability, but only if they can be enforced

Ever since the Hippocratic Oath was created in ancient Greece to guide doctors on how to practice medicine ethically – a text which still survives in a modern form today – ethics codes have been a critical way for professionals to uphold the integrity of their professions and maintain public trust. Ethics codes can ensure that practitioners are held accountable for unethical behaviour, but as we will discuss, only if they can be properly enforced.

The main purposes of ethics codes and standards are to outline the core values of a profession that serve as the foundation for ethical practice, and to provide a framework that can guide professionals in ethical decision-making. In regulated professions, the code of ethics is developed by the regulator and approved by its board of directors. Depending on specific bylaws, the code may be circulated to licensees for input prior to its adoption. Codes of ethics are also updated from time to time at intervals specified by the regulator’s internal policies or bylaws.

The values enshrined in codes of ethics vary by sector but there are several commonly held core values across professions, including: trustworthiness, competence, honesty, integrity, respect, and compassion. Ethics codes also commonly uphold patient/client wellbeing as practitioners’ top priority and provide details on how professionals should deal with issues such as confidentiality/privacy, consent, refusal of services, patient/client relationship boundaries, conflicts of interest, and interactions with colleagues. Many codes of ethics also include a duty to report, which obligates professionals to report ethical infractions by peers to the regulator.

Regulators have authority to enforce ethics codes

Self-regulatory bodies have the power to enforce adherence to ethical codes because of their role as gatekeepers of determining who is allowed to practice in their jurisdiction. Professionals are not able to choose whether they join the regulatory body, and there are clearly defined complaint, investigation and disciplinary processes in place to ensure that licensees are held accountable for any ethical infractions they commit. The expectation of punishment for unethical behaviour, which ultimately could endanger someone’s livelihood by preventing them from working, therefore acts as a powerful deterrent.

Ethics codes are not confined to regulated professions. There are many examples of occupations that are not regulated (i.e. you do not need a license to practice), but must maintain a high level of public trust to protect their integrity and credibility. Some sectors create voluntary self-regulatory bodies or professional associations, which, like regulators, adopt a code of ethics to guide professionals on core values and ethical decision-making. However, the key difference between ethics codes in regulated and unregulated professions lies in their enforcement.

Charity sector faces limitations in ethics enforcement

The philanthropic sector provides an interesting example of the limitations of ethics codes in unregulated professions. The success and survival of charities – and their continued ability to help the communities and causes they serve – depends on maintaining the trust of donors and potential donors (the public), and their fundraising employees must be seen as always acting ethically. Charities themselves are governed by state charity offices in the U.S. and the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) in Canada, but no self-regulatory body exists in either country.

The Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) was created in 1960 to empower individuals and organizations to practice ethical fundraising through professional education, networking, research, and advocacy. To join, members are required to comply with a Code of Ethical Principles and Standards designed to provide concrete guidelines for fundraising professionals in philanthropic organizations. The code is enforced through a process managed by the AFP Ethics Committee, but only AFP members can be held accountable. AFP currently has 30,000 members in more than 240 chapters throughout the world, but this is a small fraction of sector. For context, the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS) reported that as of 2016, there were over 1 million organizations classified as public charities in the U.S. alone. In Canada, there are over 85,000 registered charities (recognized by the CRA) according to Imagine Canada.

The U.K. is providing a different model with the recent creation of an independent self-regulatory body for the charity sector. Introduced in 2016 in response to public concern with unethical fundraising practices, the Fundraising Regulator ensures public protection, accountability, and excellence in fundraising. Registered organizations (who join voluntarily) are held accountable to its comprehensive Code of Fundraising Practice through complaints and investigations processes. Today, there are nearly 5,000 organizations registered with the Fundraising Regulator. Still, this is a small portion of the U.K.’s 166,000 total charities.

Ethics enforcement in journalism largely left to media companies

Journalism is another example of an unregulated occupation that requires a high ethical standard for its professionals but lacks a unified, enforceable code of ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), which is the oldest and most broad-based journalism organization in the United States, provides a code of ethics that outlines four principles as the foundation for ethical journalism. However, although adherence to the code is encouraged for “all people in all media,” because the SPJ has no disciplinary power over its members, the code can’t be enforced in practice. Instead, it falls on individual media outlets in the private sector – which ultimately exist to make profits – to adopt and enforce their own ethics codes to hold their journalists accountable and protect their reputations.

The rapidly changing digital media landscape has prompted a move toward voluntary self-regulation in some countries in recent years, including Canada and the U.K., but no equivalent step has been taken at the national level in the U.S. so far. Regarding the enforcement of ethics standards, Canada’s National NewsMedia Council does not provide an ethics code and instead relies on member media outlets to enforce their own code “or some generally accepted code of journalistic standards.” IMPRESS, the U.K.’s first independent press regulator, has a compliance process to make sure member organizations are adhering to its Standards Code, but the process only applies to members and membership is voluntary. None of the major national newspapers are among its 186 regulated publications. The U.K.’s other press regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) – which, unlike IMPRESS, is not recognized by the government’s Press Recognition Panel (PRP) – has faced criticism that it is not truly independent.

Without proper enforcement, accountability for professionals who commit ethical infractions isn’t guaranteed, leaving the whole sector at risk of reputational damage from unethical behaviour by a few bad apples. Voluntary self-regulation is a move in the right direction when it comes to being able to enforce ethical standards in professions that depend on strong ethical behaviour from practitioners. However, the “voluntary” aspect presents an obstacle to protecting the profession’s integrity because, as we have seen in the examples of philanthropy and media, large sections of the sector can be left out.

Ethical scandals can do enormous damage to sectors that rely on public trust. While they can’t prevent unethical behaviour in all cases, regulators have the advantage of being able to enforce their codes of ethics and hold practitioners accountable across the profession.

Ariel Visconti is a Content Writer at Thentia with extensive experience writing about academic research, government and politics, emerging technologies, and innovation.