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Home > CJ Ethics > Professional Codes of Ethics (discussion and examples) | Buy CJ Ethics


Paul Leighton and Donna Killingbeck
Dept of Sociology, Eastern Michigan University
© 2000 Paul Leighton. Permission is freely given to distribute paper copies at or below cost. All other rights, including electronic, are reserved. This article appears in Paul Leighton & Jeffrey Reiman (eds) Criminal Justice Ethics (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2001).

Please note: links to the Codes and Organizations discussed in this paper are at the bottom of the page

Professional ethics is about obligations related to a job or professional role, such as a police officer or social worker. People engaged in these jobs have important decision making power over the lives of others and professional codes of ethics discuss how this power should be used. At their best, codes acknowledge this power and make a public commitment that the power will not be misused, especially for personal gain. Ideally, codes provide guidance about the guiding values of the profession, specific ethical principles, and specific standards.

Codes vary widely in how thoroughly and intelligently they accomplish these tasks, so we have taken helpful language from several well developed codes to help explain the structure of a professional code of ethics. This Appendix then reproduces specific sections of codes that will be of general relevance to readers of this book, for example on competence, cultural diversity, sexual relationships, sexual harassment, and reporting information. At the end of this Appendix are internet addresses for a variety of professional organizations that have codes of ethics and a code of ethics library. We invite students to research a code of ethics for a profession they are thinking of entering, or better still read several complete codes of ethics. The code for the National Association of Social Workers is especially notable for its advocacy of individual self-determination and social justice.

Profit Without Honor When It Comes to Ethics, Business Schools Get an F: It was in 1987 that John S.R. Shad, then chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, made a personal donation of some $20 million to Harvard Business School to support the teaching of ethics. On April 21, 1989, after months of contentious debate, an initial proposal was put up for a faculty-wide vote. Reactions ranged from distrust to outright hostility. One economist argued that "we are here to teach science." Another faculty member wanted to know, "Whose ethics, what values, are we going to teach?" And a third pointed out that the students were adults who got their ethics education at home and at church. By meeting's end, the project had been sent back to the drawing board.
The American Journal of Sociology: Professional Ethics
Essential Steps for Ethical Problem-Solving from the Natl Assn of Social Work. They also have an Ethical Dilemma of the Month
Why are Values Important to a Company's Success?

Studying ethical codes does not guarantee ethical behavior on the part of professionals. As the National Association of Social Work (NASW) code states, "a code of ethics cannot resolve all ethical issues or disputes or capture the richness and complexity involved in striving to make responsible choices within a moral community. Rather, a code of ethics sets forth values, ethical principles, and ethical standards to which professionals aspire and by which their actions can be judged." The American Psychological Association (APA) code adds: "The development of a dynamic set of ethical standards for a psychologist's work-related conduct requires a personal commitment to a lifelong effort to act ethically; to encourage ethical behavior by students, supervisees, employees, and colleagues, as appropriate; and to consult with others, as needed, concerning ethical problems."


The better and more detailed codes of ethics start with a preamble, which explains the role of the profession for society, acknowledges the power it has and responsibilities that it. For example, the code of ethics for Child Welfare Professionals (CWP) states:

Society delegates to the child welfare field and to those who become members of the field the authority to intervene in the lives of families with the goals of ensuring the safety of abused and neglected children, assisting parents in meeting minimum parenting standards, and planning alternative permanent care when parents are incapable of or unwilling to meet those standards.

When individuals accept the role of child welfare professional and the delegated authority inherent in that role, they publicly acknowledge having the professional responsibilities which accompany that authority. Society and agency clients, therefore, have legitimate expectations about the nature of professional intervention as it occurs in one-on-one professional/client interactions, in the management and administration of those providing intervention, and in policy decision-making.

Because of their special knowledge and authority, all professionals are in a position of power in inherently unequal relationships with their clients. The power of child welfare professionals is particularly daunting because of their delegated state authority and the mandated nature of their professional/client relationships.

The introductions of many codes state general objectives of the profession. The NASW code announces social workers "enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty." In addition, social workers "promote the general welfare of society, from local to global levels," and "advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice."

The code then moves from general statements to a set of ‘core values’: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, competence. In turn, the core values are the foundation for more specific ethical principles. The core value of service produces the ethical principle: "Social workers’ primary goal is to help people in need and to address social problems." The core value of social justice produces the ethical principle that social workers challenge social injustice. The core value of competence produces the ethical principle: "Social workers practice within their areas of competence and develop and enhance their professional expertise."

The ethical principles of any code are meant to articulate a common set of values for the profession and provide goals to which members should aspire. In addition, the ethical principles provide the foundation for a more specific set of ethical standards that are the basis for charging someone with an ethical violation before the professional association’s ethics committee. The specific language also provides concrete detail for guidance in situations. Most codes, for example, have an ethical principle against non-exploitation, and the APA sets specific ethical standards that therapists cannot enter into sexual relationships with former therapy patients for two years following the termination of treatment – and then only under a specific set of circumstances (see APA standard reproduced below).

Ethical standards are not exhaustive and cannot be made to cover all situations. The American Society of Criminology’s (ASC) proposed code adds a helpful note that: "Ethical standards are not simply determined by whether an action is legally actionable; behavior that is technically legal may still be unethical." The APA code also tries to be helpful about the relationship between ethical standards and legal standards: "Whether or not a psychologist has violated the Ethics Code does not by itself determine whether he or she is legally liable in a court action, whether a contract is enforceable, or whether other legal consequences occur. These results are based on legal rather than ethical rules. However, compliance with or violation of the Ethics Code may be admissible as evidence in some legal proceedings, depending on the circumstances."

Even the specific ethical standards cannot cover the wide variety of real life situations that create ethical dilemmas. Most of the codes note that context is crucial to making a decision, and the NASW code is most helpful about how to resolve conflicts:

In addition to this Code, there are many other sources of information about ethical thinking that may be useful. Social workers should consider ethical theory and principles generally, social work theory and research, laws, regulations, agency policies, and other relevant codes of ethics, recognizing that among codes of ethics social workers should consider the NASW Code of Ethics as their primary source. Social workers also should be aware of the impact on ethical decision making of their clients’ and their own personal values and cultural and religious beliefs and practices. They should be aware of any conflicts between personal and professional values and deal with them responsibly. For additional guidance social workers should consult the relevant literature on professional ethics and ethical decision making and seek appropriate consultation when faced with ethical dilemmas. This may involve consultation with an agency-based or social work organization’s ethics committee, a regulatory body, knowledgeable colleagues, supervisors, or legal counsel.

Professionals who know the ethical course of conduct may face many impediments to implementing it. Readers interested in the question of how to do the right thing and still keep a job can consult Nan DeMars, You Want Me to Do What? When, Where & How to Draw the Line at Work.

Recommended: Israel, M (2004) Ethics and the Governance of Criminological Research in Australia. Report for the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. (101 pages, adobe/.pdf) Excellent survey of many current ethical problems and controversies in criminology, with examples drawn from different countries. Section 3 on the major ethical issues for criminologists is a useful companion to examine how the ethical standards below interact with the real world. 



The full text of the codes are available through the internet addresses provided below. Please note that the codes for the American Society of Criminology (ASC) and the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences (ACJS) are proposed; the language has not been ratified by the membership of those organizations at the time this Appendix was written.

Informed Consent

CWP: Child welfare professionals should inform clients as soon as feasible and in language that is understandable about the nature of the professional relationship, the nature of the professional intervention, the professional's delegated authority and the limits of that authority, which decisions the client can make and which decisions the child welfare professional will make.

ASC: Criminologists should take culturally appropriate steps to secure informed consent and to avoid invasions of privacy. In addition, special actions will be necessary where the individuals studied are illiterate, are mentally ill, are minors, have low social status, are not comfortable or familiar with the language being used in the research, are under judicial or penal supervision, or are unfamiliar with social research and its constraints and purposes.


APA: Psychologists who engage in assessment, therapy, teaching, research, organizational consulting, or other professional activities maintain a reasonable level of awareness of current scientific and professional information in their fields of activity, and undertake ongoing efforts to maintain competence in the skills they use.

NASW: Social workers who have direct knowledge of a social work colleague’s impairment [or incompetence] that is due to personal problems, psychosocial distress, substance abuse, or mental health difficulties and that interferes with practice effectiveness should consult with that colleague when feasible and assist the colleague in taking remedial action.

Case of Senior Partners v. Feeble, Dodder & Gray (Washington Post, April 4, 2003; Page E01)

In the past, uncomfortable conversations about the competence of older lawyers have generally taken place quietly inside law firms. Now law firms and ethics officials, increasingly uncomfortable with this ad hoc approach, are exploring whether a more organized system should be developed for dealing with older lawyers and their exit from the field.

"The concern is that lawyers are overstaying their abilities and ending up in the ethics system," said deputy bar counsel. "It's not the high point of a career to be prosecuting someone who is 80 years old and simply cannot handle the job anymore." 

Cultural Competence and Social Diversity

NASW: (a) Social workers should understand culture and its function in human behavior and society, recognizing the strengths that exist in all cultures (b) Social workers should have a knowledge base of their clients’ cultures and be able to demonstrate competence in the provision of services that are sensitive to clients’ cultures and to differences among people and cultural groups (c) Social workers should obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, and mental or physical disability.

Privacy and Confidentiality

NASW: Social workers should take precautions to ensure and maintain the confidentiality of information transmitted to other parties through the use of computers, electronic mail, facsimile machines, telephones and telephone answering machines, and other electronic or computer technology. Disclosure of identifying information should be avoided whenever possible.

ASA: Sociologists use extreme care in delivering or transferring any confidential data, information, or communication over public computer networks. Sociologists are attentive to the problems of maintaining confidentiality and control over sensitive material and data when use of technological innovations, such as public computer networks, may open their professional and scientific communication to unauthorized persons.

Conflict of Interest

APA: A psychologist refrains from entering into or promising another personal, scientific, professional, financial, or other relationship with such persons if it appears likely that such a relationship reasonably might impair the psychologist's objectivity or otherwise interfere with the psychologist's effectively performing his or her functions as a psychologist, or might harm or exploit the other party.

What happens when research shows that private prisons have lower recidivism, but one of the authors is a board member, consultant, and stockholder of a private prison company?

Supreme Court Justice Scalia created conflict of interest controversy by going on a duck hunting trip with Vice President Cheney at the same time there was a case pending about whether documents from Cheney's Energy Task Force should be disclosed. See columns:

Non-exploitation & discrimination, general

NASW: Social workers should not take unfair advantage of any professional relationship or exploit others to further their personal, religious, political, or business interests.

ACJS: Members of the Academy should not coerce or obtain through manipulation personal or sexual favors or economic or professional advantages from any person, including students, respondents, clients, patients, research assistants, clerical staff or colleagues. In addition, members of the Academy should recognize that romantic or intimate relationships with individuals vulnerable to manipulation, such as current students in their programs or employees under their supervision, may create the appearance of, or opportunities for, favoritism and/or exploitation, and thus such relationships should be avoided.

Sexual Relationships

ASC: Criminologists do not have sexual relationships with anyone over whom they exercise evaluative or supervisory power because of the potential for exploitation and harm. Exercising professional authority over someone with whom there has been a relationship should be avoided whenever possible because of the likelihood of impaired judgment and the difficulty in maintaining professional boundaries.

NASW: Social workers should not engage in sexual activities or sexual contact with clients’ relatives or other individuals with whom clients maintain a close personal relationship when there is a risk of exploitation or potential harm to the client. Sexual activity or sexual contact with clients’ relatives or other individuals with whom clients maintain a personal relationship has the potential to be harmful to the client and may make it difficult for the social worker and client to maintain appropriate professional boundaries. Social workers—not their clients, their clients’ relatives, or other individuals with whom the client maintains a personal relationship—assume the full burden for setting clear, appropriate, and culturally sensitive boundaries.

APA: (a) Psychologists do not engage in sexual intimacies with a former therapy patient or client for at least two years after cessation or termination of professional services (b) Because sexual intimacies with a former therapy patient or client are so frequently harmful to the patient or client, and because such intimacies undermine public confidence in the psychology profession and thereby deter the public's use of needed services, psychologists do not engage in sexual intimacies with former therapy patients and clients even after a two-year interval except in the most unusual circumstances. The psychologist who engages in such activity after the two years following cessation or termination of treatment bears the burden of demonstrating that there has been no exploitation, in light of all relevant factors, including (1) the amount of time that has passed since therapy terminated, (2) the nature and duration of the therapy, (3) the circumstances of termination, (4) the patient's or client's personal history, (5) the patient's or client's current mental status, (6) the likelihood of adverse impact on the patient or client and others, and (7) any statements or actions made by the therapist during the course of therapy suggesting or inviting the possibility of a post-termination sexual or romantic relationship with the patient or client.

See also Power, Sex & Friendship in Academia and the Washington Post article "The New Rules of Attraction: With Bans on Office Romance Out the Window, Self-Policing Evolves"

Sexual Harassment

ASC: Sexual harassment includes advances, solicitation, or requests for sexual favors from those over whom an individual exercises professional authority or with whom one attends classes or works. Harassment may consist of a single intense act or multiple persistent acts that are unwelcome, offensive, and/or that create a hostile work, school, or professional environment. Harassment can include written or electronic communications and nonverbal conduct such as touching, staring, or physically following an individual. It can also include verbal behavior that reflects excessive attention to physical appearance, especially after notice has been given that such attention is unwelcome.

ASA: Sociologists do not engage in harassment of any person, including students, supervisees, employees, or research participants. Harassment consists of a single intense and severe act or of multiple persistent or pervasive acts which are demeaning, abusive, offensive, or create a hostile professional or workplace environment. Sexual harassment may include sexual solicitation, physical advance, or verbal or non-verbal conduct that is sexual in nature. Racial harassment may include unnecessary, exaggerated, or unwarranted attention or attack, whether verbal or non-verbal, because of a person's race or ethnicity.

APA: (a) Psychologists do not engage in sexual harassment. Sexual harassment is sexual solicitation, physical advances, or verbal or nonverbal conduct that is sexual in nature, that occurs in connection with the psychologist's activities or roles as a psychologist, and that either: (1) is unwelcome, is offensive, or creates a hostile workplace environment, and the psychologist knows or is told this; or (2) is sufficiently severe or intense to be abusive to a reasonable person in the context. Sexual harassment can consist of a single intense or severe act or of multiple persistent or pervasive acts. (b) Psychologists accord sexual-harassment complainants and respondents dignity and respect. Psychologists do not participate in denying a person academic admittance or advancement, employment, tenure, or promotion, based solely upon their having made, or their being the subject of, sexual harassment charges. This does not preclude taking action based upon the outcome of such proceedings or consideration of other appropriate information.

See also: Are "Friends" Writers "Required" To Engage in Sexual Banter, Even If the Effect Is Harassing? (interesting discussion from column)

As the sun sets this week on "Friends," NBC's long-running hit sitcom, the writers, producers and network remain embroiled in litigation. At trial, a judge and jury will determine whether the writers' crude sexual remarks and gestures created a hostile environment for a female assistant or whether they can be excused by 'creative necessity.' 

Research Subjects

ACJS: Human subjects have the right to full disclosure of the purposes of the research as early as it is appropriate to the research process, and they have the right to an opportunity to have their questions answered about the purpose and usage of the research. Members should not deceive research participants about significant aspects of the research that would affect their willingness to participate such as physical risks, discomfort, or unpleasant emotional experiences.

APA: Psychologists trained in research methods and experienced in the care of laboratory animals supervise all procedures involving animals and are responsible for ensuring appropriate consideration of their comfort, health, and humane treatment. Psychologists make reasonable efforts to minimize the discomfort, infection, illness, and pain of animal subjects. A procedure subjecting animals to pain, stress, or privation is used only when an alternative procedure is unavailable and the goal is justified by its prospective scientific, educational, or applied value.

When it is appropriate that the animal's life be terminated, it is done rapidly, with an effort to minimize pain.

Authorship, Acknowledgement & Plagiarism

ASC: When a criminologist is involved in a joint project with others--including students, research assistants, and employees, there should be mutually accepted explicit agreements at the outset with respect to division of work, compensation, access to data, rights of authorship, and other rights and responsibilities. Such agreements may need to be modified as the project evolves and such modifications must be agreed upon jointly. Authorship of a completed article or product should reflect the relative contribution of authors in terms of data gathering, analysis, text, and original work and not the relative professional status of the authors. Students should normally be the principal authors of any work that substantially derives from their thesis or dissertation.

APA: Principal authorship and other publication credits accurately reflect the relative scientific or professional contributions of the individuals involved, regardless of their relative status. Mere possession of an institutional position, such as Department Chair, does not justify authorship credit. Minor contributions to the research or to the writing for publications are appropriately acknowledged, such as in footnotes or in an introductory statement.

ASA: In publications, presentations, teaching, practice, and service, sociologists explicitly identify, credit, and reference the author when they take data or material verbatim from another person's written work, whether it is published, unpublished, or electronically available. In their publications, presentations, teaching, practice, and service, sociologists provide acknowledgment of and reference to the use of others' work, even if the work is not quoted verbatim or paraphrased, and they do not present others' work as their own whether it is published, unpublished, or electronically available.


ASC: When acting as teachers, criminologists should provide students an honest statement of the scope and perspective of their courses, clear expectations for student performance, and fair, timely and easily accessible evaluations of their work.

APA: Psychologists responsible for education and training programs seek to ensure that there is a current and accurate description of the program content, training goals and objectives, and requirements that must be met for satisfactory completion of the program. This information must be made readily available to all interested parties

ASA: Sociologists do not permit personal animosities or intellectual differences with colleagues to foreclose students' or supervisees' access to these colleagues or to interfere with student or supervisee learning, academic progress, or professional development.

Reporting Research and Information

ASA: Sociologists do not fabricate data or falsify results in their publications or presentations. In presenting their work, sociologists report their findings fully and do not omit relevant data. They report results whether they support or contradict the expected outcomes. Sociologists take particular care to state all relevant qualifications on the findings and interpretation of their research. Sociologists also disclose underlying assumptions, theories, methods, measures, and research designs that might bear upon findings and interpretations of their work.
APA: Psychologists do not make public statements that are false, deceptive, misleading, or fraudulent, either because of what they state, convey, or suggest or because of what they omit, concerning their research, practice, or other work activities or those of per- sons or organizations with which they are affiliated. As examples (and not in limitation) of this standard, psychologists do not make false or deceptive statements concerning (1) their training, experience, or competence; (2) their academic degrees; (3) their credentials; (4) their institutional or association affiliations; (5) their services; (6) the scientific or clinical basis for, or results or degree of success of, their services; (7) their fees; or (8) their publications or research findings…Psychologists do not compensate employees of press, radio, television, or other communication media in return for publicity in a news item.

Social and Political Action

NASW: Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice. Social workers should act to expand choice and opportunity for all people, with special regard for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people and groups. Social workers should promote conditions that encourage respect for cultural and social diversity within the United States and globally. Social workers should promote policies and practices that demonstrate respect for difference, support the expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, advocate for programs and institutions that demonstrate cultural competence, and promote policies that safeguard the rights of and confirm equity and social justice for all people. Social workers should act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, age, marital status, political belief, religion, or mental or physical disability.


American Psychological Association 

American Sociological Association 

American Society of Criminology 

British Society of Criminology: Code of Ethics for Researchers in the Field of Criminology 

International Association of Police Chiefs 

National Association of Social Workers 

Code of Ethics Library 

Code of Ethics Toolbox 

Texas Dept of Criminal Justice 

Ethics Overview
1: Morality of Law
2: What Should Be A Crime
3: Police Ethics
4: Courts & Lawyers
5: Penology & Punishment
6: Emerging Issues
Appendix: Ethical Codes

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