Ethics Rounds

Of the joys of being an uncle, few surpass that of being awoken from an afternoon nap in your favorite chair by your five-year old niece crawling up onto your lap, book in hand, asking to be read a story. Recently my niece found me in precisely such a situation and presented me with "The Dot," a delightful children's book about a young girl, Vashti, who sits in art class with a blank piece of paper, convinced she cannot draw. After awhile Vashti's teacher tells her to "Just make a mark and see where it takes you." Uncertain and frustrated, Vashti jabs the paper with her marker, making-a dot. Her teacher examines the dot carefully and then tells Vashti to sign the bottom of her paper. The next week Vashti discovers that her dot, with her signature, has been placed in a frame and hangs above her teacher's desk. "The Dot" continues as Vashti assimilates the meanings of what her teacher has done.

"The Dot" explores what it means to take responsibility for one's work in a public way. Back in the Ethics Office, I found myself wondering what "The Dot" says about the ways we as psychologists take responsibility for our work and for our profession. My thoughts turned to what I find one of the most challenging and complex set of ethical responsibilities we face: Responding to a colleague's ethical transgressions.

1.04 Informal Resolution of Ethical Violations

When psychologists believe that there may have been an ethical violation by another psychologist, they attempt to resolve the issue by bringing it to the attention of that individual, if an informal resolution appears appropriate and the intervention does not violate any confidentiality rights that may be involved. (See also Standards 1.02, Conflicts Between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority, and 1.03, Conflicts Between Ethics and Organizational Demands.)

1.05 Reporting Ethical Violations

 

If an apparent ethical violation has substantially harmed or is likely to substantially harm a person or organization and is not appropriate for informal resolution under Standard 1.04, Informal Resolution of Ethical Violations, or is not resolved properly in that fashion, psychologists take further action appropriate to the situation. Such action might include referral to state or national committees on professional ethics, to state licensing boards, or to the appropriate institutional authorities. This standard does not apply when an intervention would violate confidentiality rights or when psychologists have been retained to review the work of another psychologist whose professional conduct is in question. (See also Standard 1.02, Conflicts Between Ethics and Law, Regulations, or Other Governing Legal Authority.)

The first ethical principle in our Ethics Code, Beneficence and Nonmaleficence, says that psychologists "Strive to benefit those with whom they work and take care to do no harm." Ethical Standards 1.04 and 1.05 are built upon the concept that our ethical obligations extend beyond the responsibilities we have toward the individuals and groups with whom we work: We have responsibilities to the individuals and groups with whom other psychologists work and to the profession of psychology as well. Ethical Standards 1.04 and 1.05 thus tie us to the community of all psychologists by giving us responsibility not only for our own ethics, but for the ethics of our colleagues, too. Abiding by Ethical Standards 1.04 and 1.05 are ways we "sign" for our profession-by accepting that our individual work is part of something larger and by assuming responsibility for ensuring that we, and our colleagues, remain mindful of how central ethics should be to all of our professional lives. Standards 1.04 and 1.05 place our work in a communal context and emphasize that an essential part of being an ethical psychologist is helping to maintain an ethical profession.

This public component of our ethical obligations resonates deeply with many psychologists. Psychologists who learn of serious ethical transgressions that inflict harm on students, research subjects, therapy clients and others can find the experience itself painful, especially so when the confidentiality strictures in Standard 1.05 prohibit disclosing the behavior. The desire to do something in these circumstances reveals a commitment to protect the public from harm and to maintain the ethical standards of the profession.

Taking action

That we have a responsibility to uphold the ethics of our profession is a starting point. Thinking through what that responsibility actually means in our professional lives is challenging in all but the most straightforward of matters. One complexity in putting these standards into practice is the cultural context: As a society, we don't like snitches. A review of what happens to whistleblowers-even those who disclose behavior that is clearly wrong and harmful-reveals a deep ambivalence about "tattling." A second complexity is that the nature of our relationships may make pointing out a possible ethical violation complicated and professionally (if not personally) risky. Retaliation is especially a concern when there is an imbalance of power between the two individuals involved. Third, often we have limited information that leaves us uncertain about whether what we know is sufficient to raise the specter of a possible ethics violation, and even raising the specter of an ethics violation can result in concerns about unfairly defaming a reputation. Fourth, responding to ethically problematic behavior may entail a significant commitment. Filing an ethics charge or a board complaint, however appropriate in certain circumstances, may offer a relatively uncomplicated response that requires fairly little effort on our part. Engaging a colleague in a process of addressing and correcting a possible violation may entail expending considerable resources in terms of time and energy. Fifth, while many of us are trained to talk about difficult things, our training tends not to prepare us very well to talk about problematic ethical behavior with our colleagues, and we can feel intimidated in the face of an uncertain and possibly defensive or angry response. All of these reasons may complicate our response to a possible ethics violation, even when we feel confident that some response is called for.

Owning membership in our community

I would venture to say that every psychologist I know has come across a colleague's ethical transgression, however significant or however slight. It can be informative to ask ourselves how we responded and how we understand our response-or nonresponse as the case may be. As APA places greater emphasis on ethics education, I look forward to our thinking through in a careful and systematic manner how we apply our commitment to uphold the ethics of our profession and put Standards 1.04 and 1.05 into practice. At APA's Annual Convention in Hawaii, I had the benefit of hearing Tom Nagy, PhD, chair of the task force that drafted the 1992 revision of the Ethics Code, discuss the challenges posed by these standards. I view his talk as an invitation to the field to explore these issues. I sometimes receive calls concerning how a student should respond to a classmate's ethically questionable behavior. Part of my reaction-that I most often don't share-is that we can hardly expect our students to succeed at something that we experienced psychologists don't do so well.

When Vashti was given responsibility for her work in a public arena and accepted responsibility in a public way, her relationship to her creativity was transformed. When we renew our membership to APA, we sign a statement that says we agree to abide by the Ethics Code. The majority of states adopt the APA Ethics Code into their laws and many of us have our psychology license displayed in our offices, visible to our clients and colleagues. The public acknowledgement and acceptance of our membership in the profession of psychology has many facets. A facet I hope we explore more deeply is how we own membership in the community of psychologists by taking responsibility for upholding our own ethical practices, those of our colleagues, and thereby the ethical standards of our profession as well.

Further Reading

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Previous "Ethics Rounds" columns can be found at APA Ethics, in the "From the Director" section.