Why Ethics Education Is a Must for Your Association
Sure, it's tough to include in professional
development-but doing it well is very much worth the trouble.
By Karen L. Niles
(Originally published by the American Society of Assocation
Executives in the Spring 2003 Professional Development Forum
Professional and business ethics have been much in the news of
late. The well-publicized legal and ethical failings at Enron,
Arthur Andersen, and United Way, to mention only the corporate
culprits, remind us that the choices individuals make about
ethical issues have far-reaching practical consequences.
Many professional and trade associations promulgate codes of
ethics, and adhering to an ethical code is one of the defining
features of a profession. So it seems natural that an
association's education function would have a role to play in
helping members understand their code and apply it in their daily
work. And who would argue that an association has no role to play
in this critical arena?
But good ethics education is tough to pull off, for a number
The "deficit" model of continuing
We're accustomed to presenting continuing education as a
way for members to acquire knowledge and skills they lack. This
pitch doesn't work for ethics programs-who wants to believe
they're deficient in ethics? The alternatives are to
position ethics education as preventive (designed to help you
avoid ethical problems in the future), or developmental (to
help you become a wiser, more thoughtful practitioner). Both
are worthwhile, but neither may be a compelling reason to
invest time and money to participate.
People's desire for immediate, practical, useful
The people taking our courses are busy professionals. They
are-legitimately-attracted to continuing education programs
that offer real-world solutions to immediate problems. But
ethics education just doesn't lend itself to "10 tips
you can use today" approaches. Sometimes it's hard to
find the immediate take-away benefit from an ethics
The need to deal with values.
Discussions of ethics inevitably explore issues of values and
character-subjects that some feel are more properly addressed
by religious institutions or professional counselors than their
Fear of controversy.
To avoid seeming preachy-or to avoid uncomfortable,
controversial issues-association ethics programs may confine
themselves to bland content and timid objectives. Covering the
content of the association's code and reviewing the
complaint/adjudication process are not a recipe for
challenging, stimulating continuing education.
For all these reasons, ethics education programs can be a
tough sell. People who are not faced with an immediate ethical
dilemma are likely to find other, more compelling continuing
education investments. On the other hand, people who are
experiencing an ethical problem are unlikely to see a course as a
solution to their dilemma.
I believe there is a role for association educators in
promoting ethical behavior and reflection on ethical practices
among members. It's wider-reaching than offering
"Professional Ethics 101" for new members. It requires
moving beyond the "training" model of continuing
education to find ways to help members engage with, reflect on,
and learn from the subtle and difficult ethical problems everyone
faces from time to time during a career. There is no ethics
education recipe that will work for every association. But there
are some directions to explore:
Use the infusion model.
Instead of setting aside a separate course on ethics, look for
opportunities to address ethical issues as they arise in other
courses. Virtually any course on business practices can
usefully and naturally include an ethics component, for
Extend your time horizons.
We don't learn from experience-we learn from reflecting on
experience. Thoughtful consideration of difficult issues
requires time to analyze, reflect, listen to others, and
reflect again. If you do formal ethics education programs, look
for formats that extend over a period of time. Web-based
activities can be very suitable for ethics education
objectives, since they permit discussion among geographically
dispersed participants and can be conducted asynchronously over
weeks or months.
Offer informal discussion opportunities.
Presented in a publication or on a Web site, ethics forums
invite members to discuss and comment on ethical problems or
case studies. Outside the context of a formal course, these
discussions (especially if sensitively moderated) can be
excellent learning opportunities.
Provide training in interpersonal skills and conflict
Sometimes an ethical problem doesn't lie in knowing what
one should do, but in feeling competent to do it. If you
believe a colleague or co-worker has a drinking or drug
problem, for example, it may be pretty clear that you should
intervene. But actually initiating the conversation can be
daunting. Training in interpersonal skills can help people
prepare for and manage difficult conversations with greater
sensitivity and control.
Help members develop their "emotional
Part of being emotionally intelligent, according to Daniel
Goleman, author of the groundbreaking book on the topic, is
being aware of one's feelings, including the nagging
discomfort that comes from behaving in ways that are
inconsistent with one's values. Sometimes people
accommodate to long-term, low-level stressors-such as cutting
corners on quality of work to meet otherwise unattainable
quotas or goals-when, with greater self-awareness, they might
choose instead to try to change the practices that are causing
Don't shy away from controversy.
Ethical standards evolve, in associations and in society as a
whole. It was once considered unethical for professional
audiologists to dispense hearing aids, for example; now it is
commonplace. Similarly, design-build practice was once
considered unethical for architects. An association can and
should provide a platform and a focus for the discussions that
clarify and move professional issues forward.
Provide support and information for members on how to
set up effective ethics programs in their workplaces.
One area of agreement in the literature on organizational
ethics programs is that to be effective they must be fully
integrated into the organizational culture. An association can
provide a valuable service for members by providing access to
information on how to set up and manage an ethics program in
their own workplace.
Make available resources on professional and business
See the resources listed below for some suggestions.
Associations have an important role to play in fostering and
supporting ethical behavior among their members. It's a role
that merely begins with covering the content of the code of
ethics in a one-shot education program. Ethics is about life; it
needs to get out of the classroom.
Karen L. Niles is director of professional development at
the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association in Rockville,
Resources on Ethics Education
Organizations and Web sites
Center for the
Study of Ethics in the Professions
Ethics Resource Center, Washington, DC
Ethics Institute, Washington, DC
"Ethics & Professionalism: Why Good People Do Bad
Things," Michael G. Daigneault, Ethics Resource Center
Complete Guide to Ethics Management: An Ethics Toolkit for
Managers," Carter McNamara.
"Debunking the 10 Myths of Ethics Training,"
Managing Training & Development, 06-01, June 2001, Institute
of Management and Administration, Inc.
"Turn Employees Into Saints?" Susan J. Wells, HR
Magazine, vol. 44, no. 13, December 1999.
"Rights and Wrongs of Ethics Training," Dan Rice and
Craig Drelinger, Training and Development Journal, May 1990.
"In Search of a Successful Ethics Seminar," William
D. Brown, HR Magazine, vol. 41, no. 12, December 1996.
"12 Steps to Building a Best-practices Ethics
Program," Frank Navran, Workforce, vol. 76, no. 9, September
Working with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, Bantam