The Professional Ethical Choice Model described here is one of the experiential learning tools used on SAICA’s mentoring programme,
Development of the model
A former chair of the Health Professions Council of South Africa’s (HPCSA) Ethics Committee, Professor Charles Malcolm, shares a story of how he came up with the idea of using a method of cooking as a metaphor for ethical decision-making and developing a professional ethical identity. He describes the first time he came across a friend cooking using a ‘potjie’. His friend asked him to keep an eye on the pot while he went inside to prepare the rest of the meal. Being a helpful chap, Charles decided he would give the contents of the pot a quick stir. When his host returned, Charles was ‘introduced’ to the principles of potjiekos cooking, namely that the ingredients are placed in separate layers and allowed to cook slowly to produce the required result, and not stirred willy-nilly.
Figure 1 Professional Ethical Choice and Awareness Model
Professor Malcolm used this piece of South African culinary etiquette learning as a metaphor for how we can approach ethical issues. When faced with an ethical issue we often have the urge to stick our spoon in to see what is going on and then try to work towards a quick resolution to the discomfort the ethical dilemma generates. He suggests that we need to allow time to consider certain aspects, contexts, people and questions before deciding on the action to take.
He also proposed a key enhancement to the use of the potjiekos metaphor by combining it with the ethical decision-making model described by Anderson, Wagoner and Moore in Law and ethics in coaching.1 The model in figure 1 is the result of this fusion and it is followed by a description of each element and how any professional may make use of this process in their day-to-day practice when faced with an ethical dilemma. We use this model on the SAICA mentoring programme.2
Using the model invites consideration of the Ethical Context in which you are practising as a chartered accountant or in your role as mentor for more junior accountants. In the metaphor, the Ethical Context is the open ground upon which your professional practice sits. Following the metaphor, you make use of three suitable rocks to support and spread the load of your ethics pot. These three rocks are your Personal Virtue Ethics, your Professional Ethical Identity and your Training in Professional Ethics and a supportive approach to applied professional development known as Professional Supervision.
- Personal Virtue Ethics refers to your personal moral character, your willingness to fully explore ‘Who or what kind of person should I be?’ If someone with poor moral character undergoes ethics training, they are most likely to develop a deformed sense of ethical responsibility, one that is not personally congruent and can undermine professional authority.
- Professional Ethical Identity and Professional Supervision and Ethics Trainings are components of the ‘acculturation journey of the professional’. On becoming an accountant, some people may discover that the profession’s ethics are different to their personal ethics or their ethics of origin. The more an individual can adapt to this culture in a way that is emotionally congruent to their personal ethics, the more they can develop a coherent and appropriate Professional Ethical Identity. Training in Professional Ethics should aim to guide professionals through this process of acculturation rather than simply prescribing a set of rules to be followed.
Professionals who are well acculturated will ensure a firm base for any intervention they undertake, with experience and knowledge of what to expect in varying ethical contexts. This will be demonstrated in the way they gain access to work, negotiate contracts and maintain boundaries in their day to day practice.
- The Culture of the Accounting Profession is influenced by the language commonly used, the philosophical views of leaders in the profession, the code of ethics and other unwritten ethical norms, the quality of training available and other observable traditions. The SAICA mentoring programme and the experiential group learning processes applied provide a supportive space for members to explore questions and reflect on this shared ethical and professional culture.
How to use the model: the choice process
When faced with a live ethical issue, you consider each layer in the pot allowing time for the most palatable result to emerge:
- Ethical sensitivity What strikes you? What raises your awareness and attention to detail, what is being said and what is left unsaid? Consider the people involved. What is it about the situation that makes you feel uncomfortable? Look for your sense of what feels good in this context. Consider diversity and your own blind spots. Widen your perspective and extend your empathetic powers.
- Ethical Thought Process What are the facts? What else might I need to find out? What does the code say and are there any legal issues here? Who should I consult within the profession? Ask the client for their ethical perspective. If you were a client what would you want in this situation?
- Motivation and Competing Values What are the conflicts inside yourself? What are the costs and benefits of a particular course of action for each individual involved? Which of your personal and professional values are being challenged and which are being championed? What is the impact on the client? Discuss your values with colleagues and peers.
- Ethical Follow-Through Who do I choose to hold me to account? Who will champion me? What core values can I feel most secure in? What do I need to let the client know?
When using this model, these layers do not have to be considered in any particular order. However, each layer does need to be considered to some extent before deciding on the nature and timing of your chosen course of action.
The metaphor in this model works on several levels:
- Timing Patience and attention ensure that the meal, the ethical choice, is the most palatable you are able of achieve. Rushing in may result in uncooked ingredients or an ill-defined mush. Procrastination may result in an overcooked, burnt or dried out dish.
- Personal Ethical Foundation You choose your own rocks from those available and to some extent you have to work with what you have. If your rock is not the right shape to act as a support for one the legs, perhaps you need to reshape the rock, chip away at some of the smooth external persona to provide a stronger support medium. You may need to adjust the position of your rocks to find a more reliable and secure arrangement. Find colleagues that you can trust who will support you, maintain confidentiality and be willing to give robust feedback.
- The Ethical Context Too many areas of South African society and international business subscribe to norms that can be ethically questionable.
Dysfunctional behaviour can become the habitual norm for all of us in many subtle ways. Working in this environment takes a sensitivity and awareness to how we interface with the sometimes boggy ground or hidden potholes of these often less than ethical norms.
Using this tool
You can begin to make use of this model in your practice and begin to seek peers and mentors that can support you in growing your professional ethical identity. In the first instance we recommend that you regularly review your clients and projects and reflect on your work and interaction with them and their system. Pay attention to what comes up – feelings, thoughts, concerns. Use the list of ethical sensitivity questions above. Consult a peer or a mentor for support in the choice-making process.
1 SK Anderson, H Wagoner and GK Moore, ‘Ethical choice: an outcome of being, blending, and doing’, in P Williams and SK Anderson (eds), Law and ethics in coaching: how to solve and avoid difficult problems in your practice, Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2006.
2 Based on a suggestion from Professor Charles Malcolm to the COMENSA Ethics Committee.
AUTHOR | Matt Shelley and Jo Searle, Facilitators of the SAICA Mentoring Programme