Professionalism 101: Why We Must Re-Address Professional Ethics
Professionalism 101
Why We Must
Professional Ethics
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Professionalism 101: Why We Must Re-Address Professional Ethics

Tony Kern, Ed.D

By Tony Kern, Ed.D
Chief Executive Officer, Convergent Performance

Professional ethics is a deceptively complex issue. It is personal, volatile and potentially a legal powder keg. It makes people nervous.

This is true largely because any discussion of ethics involves questioning another’s morality. So let’s start this crucial discussion with a simple question:  How important is morality to an aviation professional?

At its core, professional ethics is about one thing—trust. Trust between an organization and its workers; trust between employees and their leaders; trust between a service provider and their customers; trust between peers, and trust between the better and lesser angels of your own conscience.

Just as professional ethics is the cornerstone of trust, trust is the one essential ingredient in culture. Nearly everyone interested in safety recognizes the importance of culture, and discussions, plans and programs about how to improve cultures are routine. So why is it easier to talk about culture (which is based upon trust, which is created by ethical conduct), but far more difficult to talk about ethics itself?

Culture is organizational. It’s about groups and is sufficiently vague, and fuzzy enough not to threaten our personal self esteem. Ethics is none of these things. It is personal and necessarily judgmental. Unlike culture, ethics is not about us, it is about me.  It looks deep.

Almost by definition, ethics involves a person’s faith, parenting, motivations, ambition, values—and self-perception of all the aforementioned. Each of these areas is explosive in its own right, but reaches critical mass when mixed together inside of a real person and then subjected to the challenges of the day-to-day workplace and the light of outside scrutiny. Talking—or even thinking—about one’s own professional ethics can be uncomfortable at best, especially if there are some less than perfect things hidden under the rocks. And don’t we all have a few of those?

Unfortunately, this leads many to frame the discussion in a timid, third-person manner. They may be willing to talk about professional ethics in general, but not their personal ethics or your personal ethics.  That sort of academic cowardice does little for anyone seeking to be a true professional. The issue of ethics is so important, so critical to authentic professionalism, that we must take it to task. We must not shirk from examining our own personal ethics and value systems, beginning with the assumption that they could be improved. I know mine certainly can.

In order to do the right thing, we have to know what right is. In a secular society like ours, everyone is entitled to their own definitions, so long as they stay on the right side of the law. This often makes it difficult to draw a clean line between right and wrong. In nearly any rightness decision, questions arise that muddy the water.

  • Right for Whom? Is my best course of action based upon what is right for me, or what is right for others?  Many find ways to rationalize that what is right for me will always be right for others.  For example, “If I lie and cheat to get the next promotion, is that not justifiable based upon my ability to take better care of my family, or give more to my favorite charity?”
  • Right for When? If I take this noncompliant shortcut now, it may allow me to do the right thing later. For example, if a maintenance technician is faced with using an unapproved part or procedure that is good enough for a temporary fix until the aircraft gets back for the next prolonged down time, are they not doing their organization a favor?
  • Loyalty vs. Honesty. If I tell the truth about an unethical or noncompliant act by a friend or coworker, they may be punished or perhaps even fired if management finds out.
  • “Outsourced Ethics.” When ethical decisions are made in a group setting, the ethical considerations are often “outsourced” to the cultural norm. Some cultures that favor getting the job done over ethical or safety considerations will strongly impose their cultural norms on those who might otherwise act more responsibly.

The common element in these and many other ethical dilemmas is that they create mental conditions where the softer road is rationalized as for the so-called “greater good.” Compounding this ethical smog is a philosophical school of thought called situational ethics that argues every decision must be analyzed in terms of its own context, which opens up a Pandora’s box of “if it feels right, do it” options.

Professional ethics is so foundational to trust that we simply can’t afford to go down the slippery slope of situational ethics. In the real world, professionals need standards to guide their decisions and assist them in making the hard calls. In my next article, we will begin to set the standards for 21st century ethical conduct.

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