Blue Line

Agency ethics standards carry little weight

April 13, 2016  By Corrie Sloot

1112 words – MR

Agency ethics standards carry little weight

One of the many things I do to stay amused in my spare time is teaching ethics to psychology graduate students at the local university, who are on the verge of being clinical psychologists.

In teaching this course, I am often struck by both the similarities and differences between the psychology and police approaches to ethics. The most obvious difference has to do with the relative weight the professions put on our obligations to an individual versus the public.


The Canadian Psychological Association (yes, yet another CPA) code of ethics guides the behaviour of most Canadian psychologists. It spells out the basic principles that one must abide by, and provides a problem-solving template for those sticky situations when you aren’t quite sure what to do.

There are four principles, and notably, they are hierarchical; #1 is the most important and #4 the least important:

  1. Respect for the dignity of persons (this means your first duty is always to your client)
  2. Responsible caring (do what you do well, do what has been proven to work, and don’t do stuff you have no idea about)
  3. Integrity in relationships (don’t screw around with your clients, don’t hire them to wallpaper your bathroom – and don’t lie or mislead)
  4. Responsibility to society (keep in mind that there are other people out there who are NOT your client)

CPA would probably revoke my membership if they saw my interpretation, but I presume you get the gist. I am guessing that in your line of work, my #4 is defacto your #1. In other words, the primary obligation of police is not to an individual but to society as a whole. This does not mean that you don’t have an obligation to the individual – of course you do! – but really, there is a reason they call the government departments you work for “public safety,” not “individual safety.”

Another interesting difference has to do with the pervasiveness of the obligation to behave oneself. Police are supposed to be police 24/7, and act accordingly. Psychologists are only psychologists when they are at work. I can be a complete moron on my own time and generally it will not affect my professional standing – unless, of course, my behaviour is actually related to my professional standing.

I might use cocaine on the weekends, have an affair or get speeding tickets and unless it is relevant to my work, I might go to jail but am not likely to lose my license to practice. (Needless to say this is a fine line sometimes – and I have to confess that some governments are starting to think this is not such a good idea.)

I recently shared with my psychology ethics class an article I had ripped out of the December 2015 issue of the IACP publication . They surveyed their membership and asked officers about their most influential factor in ethical decision making. Fully 50 per cent of the respondents said that “individual character” was the most important determinant, followed by agency leadership (17 per cent), expectations/perceived consequences of unethical behaviour (13 per cent) peer influence (11 per cent) , “other” (four per cent), direct supervisors (three per cent) and departmental code of conduct (two per cent).

I wish I had comparable data for psychologists because I’d guess that the results would NOT be the same. I’d bet the CPA Code of Ethics would be pretty high on the list and that everyone would scratch their heads at the thought of “individual character.” What does that mean anyhow? Is it suggesting that there are simply good people and bad people and that’s what determines whether you run amok in your job? If that were the case, it means all the work we do teaching about ethics is a waste of time.

My experience is that when people are forced to go through an ethical decision-making exercise, and when all the principles – and laws and standards – are taught and explained, many people do change their minds. In my class, we do a lot of scenario based learning. I give the class a situation and ask what they would do.

After they make a decision, we go back and walk through the CPA’s ten step ethical decision making framework. In about half the cases, the answer the class comes up with after the exercise with is different from the original one. Actually, in about half the cases, the question we end up answering is different from the one we started with.

Personally, I think a lot of ethical errors happen when we don’t realize until too late that we are wandering into a minefield so I tend to put a lot of emphasis on actually identifying an ethical dilemma when you trip on one.

However… back to the subject of “individual character.” I have been on the complaints committee for the psychology regulator in Ontario for many years. As is the case (I am guessing) for police, many complaints come from people who are simply pissed off. The officer – or psychologist – has not done anything technically wrong but somehow they just managed to piss someone off enough that they filled a complaint.

Leaving these complaints aside, many of the others fall into two categories: (1) instances in which the officer/psychologist made an error in judgment and (2) instances where you cringe and feel embarrassed that this person was ever allowed to become a member of your profession. I guess it is the latter group that people in the IACP were talking about when they identified “individual character” as a prime determinant.

I do tend to wonder if there is any hope for the people who repeatedly break the rules, and sneer at those of us who try to enforce them. There is much that can be done for the people who makes errors in judgment (or perhaps I am just trying to justify my job teaching ethics). Teaching ethics informs the trainees that while they might have their own personal code of ethics, it may differ from those of other people.

As a professional, the challenge is to keep your personal biases out of the whole equation. You may be a right wing reactionary in your personal life, or an off the wall anything-goes ultra-liberal, but once you don the uniform (or hang out your shingle, depending on your job), you lose the right to impose your beliefs on others.

I was kind of sad to see that in police services, the departmental code of ethics was not seen as carrying much weight. Maybe we need to work on that.

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