In our Ethics Survey you told us about the work-based ethical issues concerning you, but do you think a professional ethical framework can help in addressing these? In this, the third blog post to disseminate the findings of our ethics survey, we look at how you think it can, and cannot, assist.
Do you think a professional ethical framework for library and information professionals can help in addressing issues like those identified in the previous question?
The 76.79% (1006) of respondents who felt that a professional ethical framework for library and information professionals can help in addressing work-based issues, and the 5.42% (71) who did not, were both asked to amplify their answers. (It should also be noted that 17.79% (233) did not know).
How an ethical framework can help
Please explain why you think an ethical framework for information professionals can help in addressing these issues.
“Provides a professional benchmark to explain and justify decisions made in a particular situation” was the most popular answer choice from the picklist provided, with 88.19% of respondents selecting this, followed by “provides an appropriate framework to judge the appropriateness of my own professional conduct or that of other Information Professionals” with 71.14%
There was further amplification of the quantitative data set out in the table above in the 85 free text comments under “other reason/s”. Many of the comments can be grouped under one of six broad headings:
27 responses mentioned employers, institutions and/or colleagues
“Gives me something to back me up when asked by employers to do something I deem unethical”
11 respondents regard a framework as a useful tool in preparation for, or during, discussions with employers. It is particularly helpful when challenging practices deemed to be unacceptable
“Useful to show employers why what they want would be inappropriate”.
And useful when justifying decisions to employers, and to colleagues from outside the profession:
“Provides proof / explanation of why we want to do things a certain way when discussing them with colleagues within the same organisation but belonging to other professions”
For two respondents an ethical framework is a way of raising awareness and understanding of the profession:
“Provides a clear framework for employers to understand the role of the library and information worker”
Two responses talked about raising the status of the profession in the workplace:
“It serves to remind employers that information professionals work within a profession, no less that other professional employees, such as accountants and lawyers...”
Profession and professionalism
This leads on to the second broad heading, “Profession and professionalism”. 30 comments referred to this:
“It's not a free-for-all! This is a profession, it has to have a moral code/code of ethics...”
Respondents regard an ethical framework as a way to ensure that professional standards are maintained and to ensure a consistency of approach. It also creates a sense of trust between professional and professional body:
“I know that ethical issues I deal with are guided by CILIP and that I can refer others to the framework if required. This is a key factor in my renewing my membership each year”
For others it has “an advocacy value” and is a good method of raising awareness of professional issues, and of demonstrating that LIS is a profession:
“[It] reflect[s] the fact information workers are part of profession and have high standards”
10 comments made explicit reference to the user, whether this is to demonstrate “that our profession... operate[s] along ethical lines”, or to “explain our practices and requirements for certain procedures to be followed”, points discussed above. For one respondent a framework “ensures safety of members and librarians”, and for another the benefits are even broader:
“Helps to ensure the best interests of the wider society (not just users/clients) are kept to the fore”.
Continuing Professional Development
10 responses raised the value of a framework for CPD, whether this is in justifying training, evaluating performance, providing “the impetus to learn” about ethical and workplace issues, or in “supporting the learning process for new entrants to the profession”, and for volunteers:
“With reduced training opportunities in some sectors due to budgets, I think a best practice framework is important for new staff coming into the profession”.
Four respondents referred to the law, with three regarding an ethical framework as a means of providing “greater protection from legal challenges”. For one a framework “ensures we satisfy legal obligations”.
Why an ethical framework cannot help
Please briefly explain why you do not think a professional ethical framework for library and information professionals can help in addressing issues like those identified in the previous question?
Turning now to those respondents who do not think that a framework can help to address work-based issues, an analysis of the 59 free text comments made in response to the question above identified 6 broad reasons:
15 respondents expressed doubts that an ethical framework could be implemented.
“It wouldn't necessarily mean that employers and employees would abide by the framework”.
Reasons for this included unethical practices being carried out by people/management outside of the profession, the absence of a mandate to enforce an ethical standard, and the belief that “guidelines will be ignored by people who lack a professional approach”.
Precedence of employers’ ethical framework
10 respondents 16.95% of the free text comments, believe that their employer’s principles will always take precedence. This may because an employer already has a strong ethical framework or because professional LIS ethics are “not really important enough to override work place ethics/culture”.
“Ultimately you need to behave in accordance with your employer's code. A CILIP guide would be a guide it could never be enforced whereas employer policy can”.
Others argued that workplace issues are for an employer to resolve
“Honestly, who would care?”
Related to this is a perceived disinterest in a framework amongst some employers and staff, with 7 people raising points such as this one:
“Many organisations / companies do not recognise CILIP or any ethical framework it might have.”
Disadvantage of codes
“Once a set of rules is set on paper, they are open to misinterpretation, used to limit or hinder, and can later be changed and hijacked by the sorts of people who want to wield power for their own ends. Loopholes are found or created. Things become more complex and mired in beauracracy”
5 respondents raised potential disadvantages in having an ethical framework. In addition to the problems set out in the quote above, respondents were concerned that a code could become a “sticking plaster solution to a social issue”, “too left wing” or the “Object to spoon feeding ethics, like health and safety!”.
Diversity of the profession and complexity of issues
Four respondents raised issues relating to the diversity of the profession.
“Too many specialised fields of practice to have just one framework”.
Other comments warned against “a one size fits all approach” and the “shoe horning” of a diverse profession into one framework”.
While two respondents felt that issues are just too complex:
“Having overarching principles won't help deal with specific and sometimes very unique queries or situations.”
One person favoured a case study approach.
For two respondents the framework is unnecessary because many ethical dilemmas are already covered by legislation such as the Data Protection Act and Copyright, Designs and Patents Act. They argued that, if Information Professionals “comply with the law”, an ethical framework is not required.
Outside our professional competence
9 respondents, 15.25% of the free text comments, stated that most issues are outside our professional competence or control. This was especially true of funding, with 8 of the 9 mentioning this:
“issues like funding don't have anything to do with ethics - they have to do with us not having the money to provide a more comprehensive service”.
The responses discussed above show that the majority of you are confident that a professional ethical framework can help to address the issues you face in your working lives. While this is very positive, for a revised CILIP Ethical Framework to be effective, it’s imperative that we consider the problems, concerns and doubts that were raised too. All 1556 responses to this survey are helping to ensure this and we are most grateful to all those who took the time to complete it.
We also acknowledge and thank our Ethics Committee, Chaired by Dawn Finch, for acting as the Project Management Board for this Ethics Review.
The survey may have closed but there is still plenty of opportunity to make your voice heard during our Big Conversation on Ethics. Why not sign up for one of our UK-wide Ethics Workshops? We will be holding them in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, with others being arranged by CILIP Member Networks. If you are a member of a network that would like to hold an ethics workshop, please see our supporting resources.
And look out for further blog posts over the coming weeks discussing what the quantitative and free-text comment survey data is telling us about how you regard each of the current 12 Ethical Principles. We’ll also be blogging about segmented responses (i.e. by sector, level of responsibility, ethnicity, gender, age etc).