Two simple questions can help career practitioners evaluate whether they are being ethical in interactions with clients and colleagues

Briony Penrose

Briony Penrose HeadshotMost career professionals are familiar with the code of ethics they are supposed to follow, but how well do we really understand how to apply ethics in daily practice? When we consider ethics from a theoretical standpoint, it can seem overwhelming. Instead, what if we thought about ethical practice as the foundation that underpins all of our communication, decisions, interactions and daily work duties? Rather than viewing a code of ethics as a rulebook filled with things we shouldn’t do, we could see it as a supportive document that guides us in every facet of our professional lives (Career Development Institute, 2019).

Most practitioners have a working understanding of ethics in relation to specific ethical dilemmas; however, there can be a knowledge gap in applying our codes of ethics to our daily work. Ethical practice is not something to just be considered when an issue arises; rather, “all of our professional behaviours have ethical components” (Anderson & Handelsman, 2011).

In Australia, we have recently undergone a review of our Professional Standards, and the opening paragraph states that “the Code of Ethics guides the professional behaviour and practice of Australian Career Development Practitioners and informs the public about the ethical standards to which the Australian Career Development Practitioners adhere” (CICA, 2019). The words guides and behaviour suggest that this code should be assisting us with everything that we do, from our interactions with clients, to our relationships with our colleagues. In other words, ethical practice and ethical decisions should be our daily goal.

How do we know if our practice is ethical?

There are plenty of models to help us manage ethical issues, such as the seven-step ethical decision-making model discussed by Forester-Miller and Davis in a Practitioner’s Guide to Ethical Decision Making (1996):

  1. Identify the problem,
  2. Apply the code of ethics,
  3. Determine the nature and dimensions of the dilemma,
  4. Generate potential course of action,
  5. Consider the possible consequences and determine a course of action,
  6. Evaluate the selected course of action, and
  7. Implement the course of action.

This model provides the practitioner with a detailed, practical process to follow. The result is a course of action that we can explain and justify if our ethical decision-making process is questioned and requires explanation. Being able to explain our ethical decisions is important because at the heart of it, “ethical decisions are formed by inner impulses (personal values), judgements, and knowledge about professional obligations” (Theurer & Neault, 2013). However, we don’t always require such a detailed tool to make decisions. As we navigate our daily work, we need our own ethical practice-checker.

Ethical ‘gates’ for guiding practice

An unattributed but popular quote suggests that before we speak, we should let our words pass through three gates: “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” If we use this premise of gates and underpin this with the principles of ethical foundations, we could have a practical tool that would aid us in our daily interactions.

Ethical foundations

  • Nonmaleficence – not intentionally or unintentionally causing harm to others
  • Beneficence – being proactive, promoting positive growth, doing good for others
  • Autonomy – respecting the right for independence and self-determination
  • Justice – fairness and equality for all
  • Fidelity – honouring commitments, loyalty and fairness
  • Veracity – honesty and transparency

(Makela, 2019; Forester-Miller & Davis, 1996)

This tool, an ethical practice-checker, could consist of two components – ethical “gates” for us to use in our daily practice:

  1. Does this respect me? To answer this question, we require a deep understanding of our values and morals; we need to understand who we are, professionally and personally (Anderson and Handelsman, 2011). This can be achieved by undertaking a process of reflection and self-examination, determining what we value in our personal life and in our professional careers.
  2. Does this respect others? We need to be mindful and respectful of all, understanding that our own complex system of values and morals may be different from others. This ties back to our ethical foundations of autonomy, justice and fidelity.

In addition, to have the foundations to be able to answer both of these questions, it is imperative that we are maintaining our currency in the career development field by being familiar with our professional standards and code of ethics, ensuring we have the appropriate qualifications for our respective roles and undertaking regular continuing professional development.

Reflecting on our daily decisions

Take a moment and reflect on your week. Consider the conversations you have had with colleagues and clients, the emails you have written and read, the decisions you have made. Now consider any moments during your week where you might have struggled with a client’s decision, been frustrated with an email or been angry at a colleague’s tone of voice. If we break down this struggle, frustration or anger, what is at the root of the issue? In many cases, it can be traced to an incongruence in two individuals’ personal values. It could be as simple as two people valuing different levels of formality in their email communication, or it could be a more complex ethical issue of a client following a career path imposed by their family, rather than following their own passions and interests. Reflect on your reaction and resulting actions and then answer the two ethical gates questions: Did you respect yourself? Did you respect others?

These two ethical gates are not intended to replace an ethical decision-making model or a code of ethics; they are quick phrases that we can use during our daily work and also during challenging moments to reflect “in action” as to whether we are behaving ethically. As career development practitioners, we are highly skilled individuals, supporting our clients to develop the skills they need to manage their own careers in a very complex and turbulent world. Our work is often demanding, time-consuming and can also be emotionally testing. By having a practical way to reflect on our own behaviour, we can feel more secure in the knowledge that we are always striving to demonstrate ethical practice.

Briony Penrose, MEd, is a Professional Careers Practitioner at the Australian Centre for Career Education, where she works in the training division, delivering the two entry-level qualifications for Australian Career Development Practitioners.


Anderson, S. K., & Handelsman, M. M. (2010). Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors [Kindle Version]. Retrieved from

BBC. (2014). Ethics: a general introduction. Retrieved from

Career Development Institute (CDI). (2019). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from

Career Industry Council of Australia (CICA). (2019). Professional standards for Australian career development practitioners. Retrieved from

Forester-Miller, H., & Davis, T. E. (2016). Practitioner’s guide to ethical decision making (Rev.ed.). Retrieved from

Makela, J. P. (2019). Enhancing Ethical Practice in Career Services: Inspiring conversation, empowering professionals. Live International Webinar Series on Professional Standards, August 8, 2019.

Theurer, G. & Neault, R. (2013). Ethics: Do we do what we say we will do? CERIC. Retrieved from