Professionalising the ethics officer occupation
By Leon van Vuuren, Executive: Business and Professional Ethics, The Ethics Institute
A recent development in the field of organisational ethics in South Africa is that ethics officers are currently aspiring to obtain professional status. These include, but are not limited to, persons who refer to themselves as ethics officers, ethics managers, ethics practitioners, and ethics and compliance officers. This development was preceded by t
he 28-0 ‘yes’ vote in a poll conducted by The Ethics Institute (TEI) during February/March 2016 where the following question was posed on our website: Is the time ripe to start a professional ethics officer association? The question that we will then attempt to answer in this article is: What is the viability of this aspiration? That is, what are the requirements, rewards and risks related to such a venture?
From the outset it should be clearly stated that not every family of jobs or occupations qualifies to attain ‘profession’ status. A profession
• Is comprised of individuals that are collectively organised in groups
• Is built on a professional and scientific body of knowledge;
• Is governed by formal professional licensing entities (e.g. regulatory bodies, professional associations/societies);
• Prescribes codes of ethics that inform and guide professionals’ practices; and
• Provides a significant public service (true professions are viewed as ‘essential occupations’).
If one evaluates the ethics officer occupation, it appears as if the occupation is at different stages of development in terms of each of these characteristics. Not unlike their colleagues that have gradually collectively gathered in professional groups, e.g. risk managers, company secretaries, compliance officers and internal auditors, the ‘group’ status of the ethics officer is being increasingly acknowledged. In the USA the ethics officer occupation, as a group of likeminded individuals with a keen interest on organisational ethics, has aspired to professionalise over the past 25 years. Insofar its body of knowledge is concerned, the post-Ford Pinto era has experienced exponential growth in the scientific interest in business ethics – this is marked, among others, by the development of business ethics as academic field through research, global surveys, institutes, and scholarly publications. Knowledge so generated is purposefully applied by business ethicists in organisations. Such applications take the form of ethics strategies, structures, systems, processes and cultures.
The closest thing to a formal professional licensing entity is found in the USA where the ethics officer occupation is currently represented by the Ethics and Compliance Officer Association (ECOA). The first meeting of the ECOA was convened in 1991. Following the meeting the Ethics Officer Association (EOA) was formed. The name changed to ECOA in 2005. During 2015 the EOCA amalgamated with the Ethics Resource Centre (ERC) to form a new organisation that is named the Ethics and Compliance Initiative (ECI). The Ethics and Compliance Association (ECA) is the membership community of ECI and has 1500 plus individual members. Given the phenomenon that an association for ethics officers exists elsewhere in the world, one needs to consider the aspiration to possibly establish an organisation similar to the ECA to serve the occupation in South Africa, or on the African continent, for that matter.
Should the ethics officer occupation make progress in professionalising, it should experience few problems in developing codes of ethics and practice that regulate members’ behaviour. Ethics is, after all, integral to the identity and shared competence of potential members.
The jury is still out on whether the ethics officer occupation provides a significant public service though. In South Africa, for example, regulatory and governance prescripts, such as the Companies Act, the Integrity Management Framework as adopted by the Public Sector and the King Reports on Corporate Governance legitimise the management of ethics in organisations and therefore the existence of the ethics officer role. If the prescripts as mentioned are aimed at preventing moral chaos and applied as interventions to promote sustainability, ensure good governance and prevent harm to stakeholders, the seeds of an argument to acknowledge the ethics officer occupation as an essential public service is certainly fertile.
There is no doubt that a fraternity of professionals could harness significant synergy. The spin-offs of such a community of professionals could potentially include collective bargaining power, enhanced credibility, recognition and status of individual members (by virtue of being part of a ‘profession’), increased networking, continued professional development, the attainment of a professional identity not unlike that of other related professions as mentioned earlier, discernment in allowing access to the profession, the possibility of influencing tertiary curricula and training standards, internship opportunities for those that enter the profession, and ultimately a positive contribution to society (‘significant public service’). In terms of the latter, there would be no harm in deepening the voice of ‘doing the right thing’, promoting good governance and organisational accountability, and preventing harm to vulnerable stakeholders through the formation of a professional association. This would be happening alongside other associations, institutes and lobbies fighting the good fight. A professional ethics officer association might just add a new form of inoculation for the ills of capitalism in preventing further harm by organisations’ and individuals’ aspirations that exceed the parameters of ‘reasonable greed’.
It should be borne in mind though that very few true professions, that is occupations that match all of the characteristics of a profession, exist. It appears as if the ethics officer/practitioner occupation could, at this stage of its occupational development, at best be categorised as an aspiring or quasi- profession, similar to other governance related professions such as compliance, risk management, forensic practice and internal audit. As such, it may face similar challenges as previously experienced by other aspiring professions: a lack of clarity of identity, purpose and structure; difficulties in gaining sufficient initial traction (albeit that one has to start small with an initiative of this nature); sustainably raising enough money through membership fees to pay the rent; failure to sustain the momentum of continually growing by recruiting new members whilst retaining existing ones; and, perhaps the most telling risk of all – a loss of collective and individual reputation through an inability to make a difference.
A professional association is usually established by an initial small ’club’ of likeminded apasionados that invest significant energy into a professionalisation drive. Should they, however, not receive sufficient collective enthusiasm and support from the rest of the fraternity, burnout and eventual capitulation may result. The good news is that all professional associations started off in the same way and that there are visible success stories of other professions, close to home, that are young but flourishing.
TEI and professional aspirations
The Ethics Institute has certified close to 700 ethics officers during the past 13 years. This equates to almost 50% of the membership claimed by the ECOA in the USA. Given the proven longevity of the ECOA there is no reason why a contingent of 700 ethics officers could not muster sufficient momentum to justify the formation of a professional association. In fact, other professions in related fields commenced activities with smaller initial membership bases. It is the contention of TEI that aspirations to establish a professional entity should be embraced. The raison d’etre of the Institute (‘Building an ethical society’ by serving more than just its members) is perceived to be satisfactorily different from that of a true professional association to justify support for its formation. Certain synergies in terms of activities, e.g. training of practitioners, could, however, manifest over time. It appears that, unlike potentially significant parallels in organisational identity, overlap of activities could be managed through dialogue and ad hoc partnering agreements.