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Ethical decision making

Ethical dilemmas are often situations where there is a clash of values, and you are required to decide which value is the most important. As workers our own personal values can conflict with the values of our profession and/or the values of our clients.

When we are faced with an ethical dilemma we can feel confused and unsure how to respond. As a worker our primary responsibility is to safeguard the rights of our clients, but sometimes the best way to do this is not always clear. Other workers, clients, carers or family members may see the situation differently from us.

Principles of ethical decision-making

Ethical dilemmas are very complex, and often there seems to be no clear solution to the problem, however we must try and resolve them. It is critical we respond professionally and appropriately with our clients and colleagues using all available professional ethical codes and guidelines ensuring care and respect for the client at all times.

In order to ensure all decisions made are ethical one must –

  • be very clear on the guidelines of the particular profession
  • be familiar with and guided by all relevant legislation
  • be familiar with and guided by all relevant standards which further define how the legislation is applied
  • be aware of the employing agency’s code of conduct, which is reflected in policy and procedures. This may be specifically linked to the client group
  • demonstrate a commitment to a moral standard of professional behaviour, which is upheld at all times
  • have a system in place which allows the exploration of all sides of an ethical dilemma and examines the consequences of any action and/or decisions that can be made

When considering, exploring or reflecting on an ethical dilemma, it is important to consult with colleagues, supervisor, director or supervisor. In discussing the dilemma with them one may begin to see the situation more clearly.

No matter what way you go about ethical decision-making, you still may feel some anxiety about your decision. This is understandable given the serious nature of the situations and life choices we are involved in supporting our clients to make. Rarely is ethics black and white, right or wrong. Situations are often controversial, because they may be complex, relate to conflicting values or contain a confusing mix of legislation and ethics.

An important sign of your commitment to ethical practice is your willingness to share your concerns or struggles with supervisors or colleagues. Also keep yourself very informed of the latest developments in your field and legislation changes, as well as be prepared to continually self reflect and learn from your experiences. As you can see, a process that should never end, no matter how many years you are in a job or how much experience you have in a given field.

We owe it to our clients to ensure that they receive the most professional and ethical assistance possible.


Ethical decision making model

You could also refer to the following model, which can assist when dealing with ethical dilemmas:

Luke, M., Goodrich, K. M., & Gilbride, D. D. (2013). Intercultural model of ethical decision making:
Addressing worldview dilemmas in school counseling. Counseling and Values, 58, 177–194.

The model as outlined below requires you to work through the following steps:

  1. Identify the dilemma. Firstly you need to look at the dilemma and gather as much information as you can to clarify the problem. It might help to consult with a work supervisor or colleague about it to determine if it can be defined as an ethical dilemma.
  2. Apply the code of conduct or code of ethics. Once you have a clearer picture of the nature of the problem you need to consult the code of ethics for your profession to see if there are clear guidelines on how the issue should be addressed. Sometimes further exploration is required. There may also be a code of conduct in your agency’s policy and procedures manual to refer.
  3. Determine the nature and dimensions of the dilemma and seek consultation. In this step you will need to ask yourself questions such as: ‘What actions will have the least chance of bringing harm to the client?’ ‘What decisions will safeguard the well-being of the client?’ ‘How can I best promote self-determination. Sometimes the dilemma may involve other agencies or other professionals. This is a situation where you must consult with your supervisor or director. Do not try to manage on your own! It is therefore useful to know who people within the service are and the organisation’s relevant reporting system.
  4. Generate possible actions. Brainstorm (with colleagues if you can) possible solutions to the problem/dilemma.
  5. Consider the possible consequences of all options and determine a course of action. This stage involves looking at all the options and the consequences of actions for all relevant parties, clients, colleagues, agency, profession etc.
  6. Consider the rights and responsibilities of all people involved. It is critical to consider the balance between rights and responsibilities of workers and clients. It is possible that as a worker you may consider that a client’s actions may be putting them at risk of injury. The dilemma arises out of the responsibilities of workers to maintain a safe environment for all clients while at the same time maintaining the rights of clients to make informed choices which may have an element of risk to attached to them. This is called ‘dignity of risk’. It is important to consider this balance and choose alternatives which uphold the rights of clients and allow them to accept personal responsibility for their choices and actions.
  7. Evaluate the selected course of action. Review your selected course of action. Be careful that the action chosen doesn’t raise any new dilemmas!
  8. Implement the course of action. You have worked through a process and should be able to justify your actions and responses. It is always useful to reflect on the effectiveness of your choices, once again with a supervisor or colleague if possible.


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