Ethical Behaviour -Ethical Decision-making

Ethical decision-making is an integral part of being an effective practitioner

CPD Assessments
Ethical Behaviour - Ethical Decision-making

Ethical Behaviour - Ethical Decision-making


Ethical decision-making is an integral part of being an effective practitioner. Being ethically or morally aware and willing to be answerable for the ethical basis of practice is essential for a successful practice. 

Ethical decision-making involves gathering all information, determining whether a problem truly exists, and whether or not there is an ethical, moral, legal, clinical or professional issue involved. It considers the client's rights and professional obligations in order to make a decision. It is also the process of considering different courses of action and their outcomes and consequences both for the client and the practitioner. 

Ethical decisions sometimes involve consultation with peers and colleagues or with supervisors. It involves gathering evidence from research to decide how best to apply professional and ethical codes, values and principles in practice.

Case Study

Imbali is a counsellor in a rural primary school. She often deals with learners' issues concerning their studies and stresses at home.

Thandeka aged 11 comes in to see Imbali. She has been struggling with her studies for a while now and is teased by her classmates. Thandeka mentions that she has a problem concentrating and is restless. Imbali noticed that Thandeka fidgets with items on her desk and has poor personal hygiene.

Imbali requests that Thandeka’s parents come through and when they do, Imbali asks them questions about Thandeka’s behaviour at home and her relationship with her siblings. She also requests permission from the parents to review Thandeka’s past results. After this, Imbali refers them to a clinic where a clinical psychologist would be able to assist Thandeka. 

Imbali is aware that behavioural issues or learning disabilities must be referred to those who are better equipped to deal with this. She gently explains to the parents that Thandeka requires medical attention so that she functions better in school. This is difficult for the parents as they fear being ridiculed by others. Imbali does her best to reassure the parents that the session was confidential and nobody will know that Thandeka had been referred to a specialist.

Ethical foundations 

According to researchers Makela (2019) and Forester-Miller & Davis (1996), there needs to be a foundation for ethical relationships to be built upon. This rests on the foundation of:
  • Non-maleficence. This refers to not intentionally or unintentionally causing harm to others.
  • Beneficence. This is about being proactive, promoting positive growth and doing good for other people.
  • Autonomy. This refers to respecting the right for self-determination and independence.
  • Justice. This includes fairness and equality for all.
  • Fidelity. This refers to honouring commitments, loyalty and fairness.
  • Veracity. This deals with honesty and transparency.
Practitioners are often faced with situations that require a sound ethical decision-making ability. Determining the right course to take when faced with a difficult ethical dilemma can be a challenge. Researchers have developed the Practitioner’s Guide to Ethical Decision-making as a framework for sound ethical decision-making. This provides guiding principles that are valuable globally in ethical decision-making and presents a model which can be used by professionals as they address ethical questions and dilemmas in their work.

Authors Forester-Miller and Davis (1996) propose the Decision-making model in the Practitioner’s Guide to Ethical Decision-Making. There are several steps that practitioners can migrate through in order to assist clients. These are discussed below.

1. Identifying the problem
Firstly, gather as much information as you can to highlight the situation or issue. Be as exact and unbiased as you can be. Write the ideas down on paper as this helps to provide clarity. Outline the facts, separate ambiguities, assumptions, hypotheses or suspicions.

2. Apply the code of ethics as prescribed by the legislature 
After clarifying the problem, refer to the SACDA Code of Ethics for Career Development Practitioners (2019) to see if the issue has been addressed. When reviewing the ethical codes, consider all multicultural perspectives of the particular case.

3. Determine the nature and dimensions of the issue
Reflect on the situation’s impact on each of the foundational principles: justice, autonomy, non-maleficence, fidelity and beneficence. Carefully decide which of the principles apply to the specific situation and determine which principle takes priority in the case. 

4. Generate a possible plan of action
  • Think about as many potential courses of action as possible. This also means that the practitioner should consider those options which might not work.
  • Do not focus on judging and removing solutions as you will assess those next.
  • When possible, consult with at least one colleague who subscribes to the SACDA Code of Ethics to help you generate options.
5. Think about the possible consequences and determine what course of action will be taken
  • Using the information gathered, evaluate each option, but be sure to assess the potential consequences for all of the people involved. Consider the implications that each course of action has for the client, for others and for yourself as a practitioner.
  • Remove the options that are no longer applicable or those that cause more challenging consequences.
  • Review the options to determine which option or combination of options best fits the situation and addresses the priorities you have identified.
6. Evaluate the selected course of action
  • Assess the course of action to see if it presents any new ethical challenges.
  • Use the rule about the three simple tests to the selected course of action to make sure that it is appropriate for the situation: justice, publicity and universality (Stadler, 1986).
    • Justice: when using the test of justice, evaluate your sense of fairness by asking yourself if you would treat other people the same way in a similar situation in the future.
    • Publicity: to test publicity, ask yourself whether you would want your behaviour publicly reported on in the media.
    • Universality: The ‘test of universality’ questions whether you would recommend the same course of action to a colleague in the same situation.
7. Implement the course of action
Practitioners need to implement their course of action, although it is not easy. After applying your course of action, follow up on the situation to monitor whether your actions had an effect and the consequences that might have followed.

The simple model provides guidelines to follow. It also provides a detailed course of action that we can refer to if authorities question our ethical decision-making. The practitioner must be accountable for their actions. 

Ethical ‘gates’ for guiding practice
Over the years, theorists have prescribed models that assist in ethical decision-making. It is suggested that before speaking, practitioners should let their words pass through three gates: “Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” 

Using the “gates” together with the principles of ethical foundations, we have a practical tool that can aid us in our daily interactions with people. Also, practitioners can ask of themselves the following questions before responding to clients:

1. Does this response or action respect me?
This requires a deep understanding of our own values and morals; we need to understand who we are, personally and professionally. Practitioners need to engage in the process of reflection and self-examination to find out what they value in their personal lives and professional careers.

2. Does this respect other people? 
Practitioners need to always be mindful and respectful towards all people, even though their own system of values and morals may be different from others. This ties back to our ethical foundations of autonomy, justice and fidelity.

It is important to realise that different professions (psychologists, social workers or teachers) may choose various courses of action for the same situation. There is no right answer to a difficult situation. Having a systematic model helps guide a practitioner into the course of action that is the most appropriate for all parties concerned.

Shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 2.0 South Africa (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 ZA) 

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Kindly attribute as follows:

Beukes, C. J., Mahadave, K., & Kanhai, K. (2022). Professional Development Portfolio for Career Development Practitioners (1st ed.)CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 ZA, 


Karuna Mahadave

Christopher John Beukes