5 tips for making ethical decisions

Consider long-term impact, codes of conduct for professional designations

5 tips for making ethical decisions
From left to right: Moderator Stephanie Gurnari, Chubb; Brad Giles, Bradley Giles & Associates; Treasa Turnbeaugh, Board of Certified Safety Professionals; Nick Nichols, Southeastern Oklahoma State University; and Arthur Schwartz, National Society of Professional Engineers. Photo courtesy of

Safety professionals are frequently faced with difficult decisions, some posing quite the ethical dilemma. Unlike the rule of law, ethics are the moral driver within an individual that shapes who they are and informs their professional conduct, according to Arthur Schwartz, deputy executive director and general counsel for the National Society of Professional Engineers, speaking as part of a panel discussion at the American Society of Safety Professionals' annual professional development conference in New Orleans on June 11.


Schwartz and his fellow panellists explored how safety professionals can make the right decision in challenging circumstances, and offered the following advice:


Think about the long-lasting effects of your decision. When a difficult decision is about to be made, a safety professional needs to be able to think several years down the road and look at the effects of that decision. They should imagine themselves at some point in the future looking back and saying, “I made a good decision.” If the decision is straddling the ethical line, the professional needs to think about whether or not they could live with themselves if another individual was harmed due to the decision they made, said Nick Nichols, professor in the department of occupational safety and health at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.


While there initially might be some flack initially for going against the grain and standing up for what is right, it’s worth it to ensure all workers are safe.


“(It might be that) we went through a lot of heartache over it in the company but ultimately, policy-wise, even though my name might have been muddied for a certain period of time, we made the best decision because the company was steered in the correct direction,” Nichols said.


Consider the codes of conduct for your designations. If an individual holding a professional designation — such as Canadian Registered Safety Professional, Certified Safety Professional, Certified Health and Safety Consultant, Certified Industrial Hygienist etc. — violates the code of ethics for that profession, there are serious consequences. If a review by the governing board reveals unethical behaviour took place, that individual's designation could be suspended for a period of time or completely revoked. They may not only lose that particular designation in question, but they could lose any others they hold as well.


“We work with a number of other associations, a number of other certifying bodies that we have agreements with and it's reciprocal. So, if we were to know that we had somebody with the Canadian Registered Safety Professional certification as well, we could be obligated to let them know that we are hearing this case on the BCSP front from this individual and for them to be aware of it as well,” said Treasa Turnbeaugh, CEO at the Board of Certified Safety Professionals (BCSP).


In a worst-case scenario, if the decision made by the safety professional resulted in bodily injury or property damage, they might face legal consequences or be held accountable for the financial aspects, Schwartz added.


Understand all your obligations. One reason why some decisions can be a bit tricky is because professionals have various entities that they must be loyal to. Take engineers for example: Their primary obligation is to the public but they also have a secondary obligation to their employer (or client) and a tertiary obligation to other parties, Schwartz said.


“Sometimes those obligations come in conflict and you do have to balance them in certain cases. You may have a duty of confidentially to your client when your primary objective is to the public health and safety,” he said.


The issues are textured, he added, so all professionals need to have a deep and through understanding of the codes of ethics that bound them and really understand what’s at stake.


Consult with someone you trust. Most people have an innate sense of right or wrong, but sometimes it’s “The right versus the right” or “The lesser of two evils” and professionals can find themselves caught in between, Schwartz said. When the right choice is not abundantly clear, it’s a good idea to run through the scenario with a trusted confidant.


“Maybe consult with a colleague about some of these ethical issues, someone you trust, possibly a supervisor or someone you feel comfortable with and really try to air out the views before you take action,” he said.


A coach or mentor can be an invaluable resource in these situations.


Think about the next generation. When faced with a dilemma, think about if you would allow a child that you love do the precise thing you are thinking about, or if you would stop them in their tracks, advised Nichols. Brad Giles, principal of Bradley Giles & Associates echoed the importance of thinking of loved ones when at a crossroads.


“If you can’t look yourself in the mirror, if you can’t think about exposing your spouse or kids to it, you have a decision to make.”