By Gisela Theurer and Roberta Neault

Jennifer works in an agency that provides employment services to individuals with disabilities1 . One of her colleagues, Margaret, has been struggling with her workload and the stress of the job, and is occasionally very abrupt and impatient with clients. Jennifer observes this behaviour, and tries to talk to Margaret, who brushes her off. Management of the agency appears tolerant of Margaret’s behaviour, as she is a long–term employee and her productivity appears satisfactory.

Jennifer is affiliated with a professional association, and is aware of the responsibility to take action when inappropriate behaviour is observed. However, she is not aware of anyone, ever, reporting a colleague’s unprofessional behaviour. She feels distressed and is unclear about her employer’s support for any action she might take.

The word ‘ethics’ is constantly in the news. We once read the acronym “DWWSWWD”, which stands for “Do What We Say We Will Do”. However, career practitioners realize that our work has become more complex, so it appears to be fitting to change this statement to a question: “Do We Do What We Say We Will Do?” Jennifer knows what she ‘should’ do, but does not feel she is able to act on what she agrees is part of her professional obligation.

Ethical behaviour used to be defined through common sense and empathy – now it appears that the meaning of ethics has become much grayer. Professionals are concerned about survival in the changing political climate: Can we be ethical in today’s bottom line environment? How do we maintain our ethical standards when someone else has the decision–making power? How can Jennifer report a colleague, when her agency has not placed a strong emphasis on ethics, not taught staff a decision making process when presented with an ethical dilemma?

Ethical fitness is the capacity to recognize the nature of a challenge, and respond with a robust understanding of the dilemma, especially when several options have ethical foundations2. We have to be mentally engaged and committed through feelings as well as through the intellect. It is vital that we as career practitioners have an understanding of the basis of ethics: our common values. With an understanding of our commonalities, raised awareness and mindfulness, we are better prepared to articulate and think through the increasing complexities in our work.

Ethical decisions are formed by inner impulses (personal values), judgments, and knowledge about professional obligations. There are four paradigms that are relevant for this discussion: individual versus community, justice versus mercy, short–term versus long–term, and truth versus loyalty. For example, how do you make a choice when there is a conflict between the needs of an individual and a community? If you have a disruptive client in a group, how do you choose who takes priority: the individual (who has multiple barriers and without your support may be in a worsening situation) or the group (whose learning is diminished by the individual’s actions)? In Jennifer’s case, she is aware that both her choices (reporting or not reporting Margaret to her professional association) may have some negative consequences.

Many career practitioners are members of professional associations or organizations that provide a code of ethics (e.g., Canadian Counselling Association3, NETWERCC4, and the Canadian Association of Rehabilitation Professionals5). As a result of the National Standards and Guidelines for Career Development, Canadian career practitioners also have a specific code of ethics to guide their work6. An important feature of this code is the accompanying Ethical Decision Making Model, which provides a five–step process for making ethical decisions within our field:

    • Recognize that an ethical dilemma exists.
    • Identify the relevant issues, all of the parties involved, and corresponding pertinent ethical principles from the Code of Ethics.
    • Examine the risks and benefits of each alternative action.
    • Choose a solution, take action and evaluate the results.
    • Learn from the situation.

Ethical fitness, like physical fitness, takes a commitment to continuous practice. Ethical dilemmas benefit from discussions with peers, as we grapple with diverse perspectives and conflicting needs. Courses, seminars, workshops and online discussion forums provide rich opportunities for career practitioners to share dilemmas and explore potential solutions. For Jennifer to take positive action when a dilemma arises, she and her colleagues need to be encouraged to participate in regular discussions about the myriad ethical dilemmas that arise in our day–to–day work.

John Gardner states that a ‘good’ community needs to find a productive balance between individuality and group obligation7. Our ethics shape how we participate in our work and our community. Discussions and reflections on these questions are, therefore, exciting, challenging and truly essential to our profession.

1The names and incident are fictitious and a combination of several situations presented to the first author.

2Some information in this article is from: Kidder, R.M. (2003). How Good People Make Tough Choices. New York: HarperCollins. (go to About Us, scroll down to Code of Ethics) Scroll down to Standards and Guidelines. Select Code of Ethics.

7John Gardner, p. 130, in: Kidder, R.M. (2003). How Good People Make Tough Choices. New York: HarperCollins.

Gisela Theurer, M.A., C.C.R.C., has a Master’s degree in Counselling Psychology, is a graduate of The Coaches Training Institute, and has 25 years of experience in community services and entrepreneurial development. She currently operates a coaching and consulting business. She is hooked on ethics and has delivered ethics training through seminars and conferences. For further information, check her website:

Roberta Neault, PhD, CCC, RRP has a PhD in Educational Psychology and a Master’s in Counselling. She teaches Professional Ethics in the Campus Alberta Master’s in Applied Psychology program and co–developed/co–instructs the fully online Ethics for Career Practitioners course with Gisela in the Career Management Professional program, next scheduled in August 2004. Contact or visit, for more information.