Search online for ‘professional conduct and ethics’ and a long list of professional bodies and their codes of conduct appear. But why is that? Why do we have these kinds of codes at all? The easy answer is that professional conduct and ethics are important – arguably more so than ever before. But thinking closer to home, how critical are they to us as sustainability professionals?
I have often thought that the very heart of my job – not just in my role as Head of Member Competence and Capability here at IEMA, but as a sustainability professional who has worked for a local authority and a large manufacturing plant - is to always aim to provide conscience to the decision-making process. Whether it be decisions about how an organisation goes about its business, the business it does, or decisions about what a new development looks like and whether it goes ahead or not, I will always consider the environmental and social impact of decisions and give them a voice. With this in mind, I can only be truly effective in my job if my voice is listened to and I can influence decision making. However, people are more likely to truly listen to me and value my input if I am (and my profession is) trusted, credible and respected. So, for me, this is where my IEMA membership kicks in and the Code of Professional Conduct really starts to add value.
I know, whether I like it or not, I am complicated. I am human. All of my behaviour, choices and decisions are influenced by my life experience to date. That has been shaped by the cultural norms that surround me and a huge range of other unconscious factors that I am completely unaware of. With all these unconscious influences on my behaviour and decisions, does adhering to the Code help me to fairly represent the environment and society in decisions? I believe it does.
If I act in accordance with the Code, it will guide me to make the best possible decisions and represent the environment and society to the best of my ability. Following the Code will help me make measured, thought through decisions that are based on sound science and are supported by evidence - critical in a world where fake news and greenwashing have made people sceptical of ‘experts’. The Code prompts me to keep my knowledge and skills current and to only accept work which I am competent to carry out. That’s not to say I don’t take risks and stretch myself - I do, just not in a reckless way.
The Code also encourages me to consider what the unconscious influences on my decision making might be and how to manage them.
Being able to show that I refer to the Code is a powerful way to demonstrate my credibility and professionalism, helping people to have confidence in the advice that I am offering. There are no guarantees that people will take my advice on board, and whilst that can be frustrating, it’s OK because that is their decision to make based on their own beliefs and attitudes. My job is to give good advice, and as long as I have done that my conscience will be clear, and I will have acted in accordance with the Code.
The Code can also protect me. Recent research by the Institute of Business Ethics shows that disappointingly, pressure to compromise ethical standards in the workplace has risen in recent years. And while it is important to remember that in the UK only 12% of respondents in 2018 reported feeling under pressure to compromise ethical standards, this was up from 8% in 2015 so this shows a potentially worrying trend.
So, what if one day I find myself among that 12%, in a situation where I am being pressured to compromise my personal and professional ethics, what do I do? Well for me this is where I again would refer to the Code. I would use it to demonstrate that I am not being difficult, or intentionally being obstructive but that I am simply being an IEMA professional, and that means I won’t compromise my ethics. With a bit of conversation and education most people would understand my position and would see my approach and my professionalism as positive, but not all would view things that way, depending on their own experience and motivations. That’s where that individual should refer to their own code – either personal ethical values or a formalised vocational one like IEMA’s new Code of Professional Conduct. And that’s why it’s so important for our profession, and others, to have these kind of things in place – so we all have clear help and guidance at the time we need it most.
About the Author
Claire Kirk is Head of Member Competence and Capability at IEMA.