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 Online Newsletter)

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 of reasons:

  • The "deficit" model of continuing education. 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 information. 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 program.
  • 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 professional association.
  • 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 example.
  • 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 resolution. 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 intelligence." 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 their distress.
  • 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 ethics. 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, Maryland. 

Resources on Ethics Education

Organizations and Web sites

Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions

Ethics Resource Center, Washington, DC

International Business Ethics Institute, Washington, DC


"Ethics & Professionalism: Why Good People Do Bad Things," Michael G. Daigneault, Ethics Resource Center 1996.

" 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 1997.

Working with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman, Bantam Books, 1998.

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