I think it's important to say that I'm not 'against' a code of ethics - I see and understand both sides, I guess I'm just a bit ambivalent.
In framing why I'm on the 'against' side, my worldview is informed pretty heavily by positivist psychology - all about what people can achieve, what our potential is, and how we assist people in getting there.
In approaching an 'ethical' system, I've worked in both state and local governments, both of which had Codes of Conduct dictating ethical practice. I thought that they were great ideas, until I hit some strange ethical bumps (as youth workers do), and other people slammed into trees of unethical practice... I had instances where what was good and ethical youth work practice conflicted with my Code of Conduct, and I saw staff members jailed and escorted off the premises for various types of seriously unethical practice.
My thoughts? While ethical guidelines are immensely useful and necessary, you can't 'Code' being a good, ethical person. I believe that workers/people will undertake unethical practice in the same amount under a Code of Ethics (and I think it's great that we may be able to 'kick them out'), but that we should be striving for aspirational youth workers who have a solid grounding in ethical and decision-making systems. A Code of Ethics may help reinforce this, but it is not the solution...
The Professional standards that a Code of Ethics implies may also cut out some great examples of youth work (particularly with severely marginalised or 'at risk' yp) that I have seen, as they would violate some of the terms of the Code, but may still deliver great outcomes that are delivered without harm
PRETTY MUCH THE WHOLE SHOW
I am not opposed to a code of ethics for youth workers. I simply do not think it will make any difference to the way youth workers will act. I am in favour of youth workers acting ethically and I am in favour of doing all we can to make sure this happens. I just don’t think that a Code of Ethics will make much difference. The following adds some words to the above position, but basically that’s it.
CODES OF ETHICS – CODES OF CONDUCT - CODES OF PRACTICE
Yes, they are different, but have much in common, each being concerned with right action and protection of individuals and those around them. However, for this discussion, I am putting them loosely together in the one basket, and refer to each, directly or indirectly, as we go.
WE ALL ALREADY KNOW
Think about these two questions:
My guess is that you answered ‘yes’ to each of these questions. What if I asked:
You will know the answers to these questions too.
People who are in life-partner type relationships, whether married or not, know what is ethical and unethical. We each know, in all our relationships, what is okay and what is not okay to do. Yet our behaviour is rarely determined by a set of stated principles. It is more often governed by a set of unspoken and usually undiscussed principles. A code of conduct if you like. And we all know what this is. It just isn’t recorded anywhere.
My five year old knows when he is doing the right thing and when he isn’t. Even our 20 month old can be found hiding behind furniture in the corner of our lounge room as he dissects something he is not supposed to have. Why is he hiding? Because he knows he is doing the wrong thing and is trying to conceal it. But at 20 months old he already knows!
When people act ‘badly’, it is generally for one of three reasons:
Codes do not stop unethical behaviour. Those who act ‘unethically’ will do so whether a code exists or not. So for them, a code is ineffectual. For those who act ‘ethically’, they will also do so anyway; and so for them a code is irrelevant.
GENERAL OR SPECIFIC
There is a Code of Ethics endorsed by YAPA (and I am indeed a friend of YAPA)
and YAPA is working towards it being adopted as a national code of ethics for youth work. Here are two points from that code:
Who could possibly disagree with these genuinely noble sentiments?
Here is something from the Early Childhood Australia http://www.earlychildhoodaustralia.org.au/code_of_ethics/early_childhood_australias_code_of_ethics.html
You will find on the website this statement: ‘…the following values and processes are considered central to the Code of Ethics:
Again, who would disagree?
And the following from the Code of Conduct for the Australian Public Service:
And this too is genuinely admirable stuff. And that’s it right there. Codes of Ethics are usually so general (as they must be) that they are almost impossible to disagree with. Codes of Conduct although often more specific, suffer from the same difficulty. And if Codes of Ethics or Conduct ever become more specific (and they won’t) they will be enormous (endless?) and then in the detail, we shall start to see disagreement.
So let’s get into detail.
How would you respond to these questions:
And straight away the responses will be: ‘Yes.’‘No.’ or ‘It all depends.’
And what if the agency you work for has these amongst its aims:
You will agree that these are good ideas. Or you won’t.
NOT UNETHICAL JUST HUMAN, UNCERTAIN OR DIFFERENT
There is a difference between unethical behaviour and just getting it wrong. Most of us as youth workers have made mistakes. We see them as such, and try to learn from them and try to not repeat them.
There is a difference too between being uncertain about how to proceed, what to do, what would be best, what is going to be most productive, and what is unethical.
Nor does disagreement constitute unethical behaviour. Should we involve a young person’s parents in what is happening in our service? Should we notify Community Services if we have concerns about a young person? Are drop-in centres good youth work? And ‘different’ also does not equal ‘unethical.’
Some services/centres/agencies define quite specifically how they wish their workers to behave. Such as:
And so on…
These are not decisions of ethics per se. They are specific operational decisions that workers are required to follow. We agree with them or we don’t. We accept these or we don’t, and ideally if we don’t accept them, then we don’t work for the agency.
UNUSEFUL – UNHELPFUL - DAMAGING
Now the debate gets tougher and probably more heated. The research around ‘Drug Education Programmes’ in schools is becoming pretty convincing. Most approaches seem to be, at best unproductive, and at worst, counter productive. So how do we respond to a youth worker who continues to present education programmes that have the evidence stacked against them? Is this simply Individual choice? Poor judgment? Unethical?
The evidence also tells us that expulsion and suspension are closely connected with a student ‘failing to complete.’ Why then do schools continue with these practices? Should we, do we, consider these actions ‘unethical?’
COVERING YOUR REAR END
If the purpose of a Code is to bust someone after they have done something and say: ‘Aha! you never should have done that and you did agree to abide by our code of ethics…’ then okay! So spend a little time and get a code of conduct from somewhere and put it in place. If there is some requirement, then I am right behind services finding and/or creating a code of ethics and a code of conduct that meets this requirement. Do it quickly and efficiently.
A SOURCE OF DISCUSSION
I have heard the comment that a Code can serve as a guide, a discussion point, something to refer to. It won’t. Because people don’t sit around discussing codes of conduct. Not youth workers nor anyone else. I checked. I asked two child care workers, two lawyers, a doctor, one ex-policeman, a radiographer, a psychologist, a dancer, a manager of a health service, and three youth workers about codes of ethics for their respective fields. There were varying responses but generally along the lines that, yes there was one, and it had something to say about treating people respectfully and fairly, though no-one could actually say just what was in it. But what we did start to do straight away was talk about our work. And that’s what everyone does. We talk about the work we do. Youth workers do discuss the young people we work with and ways in which we can best be of help to those young people. And embedded in these discussions are the ongoing ethical dilemmas, tricky situations and messy circumstances that we face on a daily basis. These discussions will take place whether we have codes or not, because how we live and how we act is always of importance. But significantly, what is not discussed are Codes of Ethics. (Except possibly during this and other articles like it.)
So why did I agree to write this? Because ethics and discussion about ethical behaviour in youthwork is important. As youth workers we need to be able to articulate our theoretical underpinnings (not just our philosophical ones) which underpin our approaches, programmes and individual actions; we need to be aware of and build into our work what research and evidence is telling us about what helps young people grow well and what helps them turn around destructive behaviour. We need to be accountable for how (mostly) tax payers’ money is spent and how we impact on the lives of young people. And accountability is more than filling out forms, ticking boxes and getting numbers outcomes. It involves being open to scrutiny, observation and discussion. It means ongoing solid professional development, supervision/mentoring with those with more experience, and discussions, and creative and adventurous endeavours with peers.
A code does not guarantee right action, quality or excellence of work. So would I vote against a national code of ethics? No. Would I be in favour of thousands of hours and dollars being spent on developing one? Definitely no. When so much needs to be done and can be done, would it be sensible to spend valuable resources in this way? Some might even consider it ‘unethical.’ Yes? No? It all depends?
Australia has experienced an ethics epidemic over the past decade. Industries have rushed to sign up to codes of ethics (or similar). No doubt you have noticed significant improvement in the conduct of used car sales people, real estate agents and the big banks. You will certainly have new faith in the ethics of public servants, parliamentarians and ministerial staff. And I’m sure you now trust the ethical basis of general meetings held by big business. Further, you feel assured that any problems you experience with these professionals will be remedied in a fair and efficient manner.
Similarly (like the general public) you are no doubt familiar with the codes of ethics of doctors, psychologists and social workers. You know what to expect in terms of their quality of service, and are confident that if ever you had any concerns about their practices, their professional peers would make them accountable for their behaviour.
In fact, the codes of ethics of many of these groups are difficult to find. Once found, they typically either focus on vague statements of intent, or dense, jargonistic text which can only be fully understood by insiders. Often, they simply reiterate areas which are already covered by the law. They rarely provide any genuine guidance in the tricky business of ethical decision making – which is made more complex in youth work (and community services generally) by the fact that we are generally dealing with particularly vulnerable or disadvantaged people. For example, what does respecting diversity mean? It could as readily be interpreted as be nice to everyone, or, undertake ongoing sophisticated training and operate within the frame of reference of each service user, or, anything in-between.
Codes of ethics are a mirage. They provide an illusion of ethical practice, which is all too often disappointed. Further, real harm is done by the loss of ethical growth which has typically followed the adoption of codified ethics in other community services occupations. Whole modules of study focused on ethical exploration have been replaced by single tutorials, where professional codes are presented as a fait accompli. Anyone who questions an established code is commonly demonised, marginalised and seen as unethical.
Codes of ethics primarily serve to increase the social status of professionals. They value conformity over creativity; credentialism over competency; internal secrecy over public accountability.
There is no evidence a code has improved consumer access to remediation in other occupations. Codes of ethics create greater distance between consumers and providers – more hoops to jump through in order to challenge unethical behaviour. What makes us assume that a code of ethics would improve young people’s power? What makes us believe that young people would approach a professional body more readily than making a direct complaint to a service or the police?
Codes of ethics are a professional fashion accessory. They have little to do with improving practice … and a lot to do with marketing a social image.