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Ethical Practice and Dilemmas

by Jenifer Chacon and Christina Nigrelli, ZERO TO THREE

Have you ever experienced an ethical dilemma in your practice? Perhaps struggled choosing among two morally acceptable ways of handling a situation? Or felt stuck between a rock and a hard place having to choose between two or more morally unacceptable courses of action? Ethical dilemmas emerge regularly in professional practice. The most complex dilemmas often occur within gray areas, making it difficult for professionals to make the right decisions as they negotiate among various courses of action that challenge our morals and ethical principles.

Ethical principles guide professionals through the decision-making process; the principles help professionals approach challenges in working through ethical dilemmas. They serve to clarify the ethical obligations for professionals and those they serve. The ethical codes are based on a profession or organization’s core values and key ethical principles. They are specific to each profession but often share common values and principles.

Ethical principles can also support the efforts to collaborate with professionals in fields different than our own. Take for example, a licensed clinical social worker and an early care and education professional. Both work with young children and their families but represent a different field and may use a different lens to provide support. Each lens is closely tied to the ethical principles and values professionals follow. What they might not be aware of is that they share common ethical principles. Both the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workersi and the National Association of the Education of Young Children’s Code of Ethical Conductii highlight the importance of human relationships, including the importance of relationships with families and professionals. This shared common principle can provide a foundation for collaboration and can ensure the continuity of care the two professionals provide families they mutually support. An awareness of the values and principles of other professions can also increase our understanding of the how and why’s of what they do. It can give us some insight into the way they might approach a situation.

Although ethical codes provide guidance, they cannot guarantee ethical behavior. Ethical behavior is the result of an individual professional’s commitment to ethical practice. When the information found in ethical codes is not enough to guide decisions and actions, professionals are encouraged to seek help from colleagues, supervisors, ethicists, lawyers, or others as needed. This approach is consistent with a tenet of relationship-based practice: no one should make a difficult decision alone. The American Counseling Association’s Code of Ethicsiii provides additional guidance for ethical decision-making. The steps in the process include, but are not limited to:

1. seeking consultation
2. considering relevant ethical standards, principles, and laws
3. generating potential courses of action
4. identifying risks and benefits
5. selecting an objective decision based on the circumstances and welfare of those involved

As you move forward in your professional practice, take time to review the ethical principles that guide your profession and read the code of ethics of other professions that you encounter. Ethical dilemmas exist when there is uncertainty about the best course of action. Ethical guidelines and decision-making can be helpful guiding tools when facing ethical dilemmas.


i. National Association of Social Workers. (2008). *Code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers*. Retrieved from www.socialworkers.org/pubs/Code/code.asp
ii. National Association for the Education of Young Children. (2011). *Code of ethical conduct and statement of commitment*. Retrieved from www.naeyc.org/files/naeyc/file/positions/PSETH05.pdf
iii. American Counseling Association. (2014). *2014 ACA code of ethics*. Retrieved from www.counseling.org/resources/aca-code-of-ethics.pdf

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