Professional ethics affects everybody – what does it mean to you?

  • By Janine Herzig FAusIMM(CP), AusIMM Director

At AusIMM Congress 2016, which was held in Cairns in May, I chaired a very important workshop on professional ethics.

We all face ethical challenges on a regular basis. As professionals, and AusIMM members, we all play an important role as leaders both in our work environment and in our daily lives. The Congress workshop enabled delegates to share personal experiences and to discuss the approaches they have used – or might consider using – to deal with ethical challenges.

Professional ethics should not be confused with ‘compliance’ or a simple checkbox approach to make sure we’re acting lawfully and reducing risk. To excel in ethics is much more than this. Instead of highlighting the poor choices we want to avoid, we must focus on the positive virtues, and promote the values and behaviours we want to exhibit.

Of course, we all aspire to act with the highest ethical intention, and expect the same of our colleagues. Unfortunately, this is generally far from reality as we will all be able to think of occasions during our careers where we have not met our own high standards or where we have observed unethical behaviour from others.

As the Board representative on the AusIMM Ethics Committee, I have observed a growing number of complaints being escalated to Ethics over the past few years. Many things that might have been thought of as acceptable or even appropriate ten or 20 years ago certainly would not be considered ethical or acceptable today.

As leaders we must continually reflect on the challenging situations and issues we find ourselves dealing with, and make sure we regularly test our thinking and approach. In all our professional dealings, we need to respect each other’s right to a view or opinion.

This point was reinforced a few weeks ago by the Board in communicating our Bullying and Harassment policy to all members and Chairs of Communities of Interest to include on their meeting agendas. The policy was also front and centre in all the 2016 Congress delegates’ workbooks.

The Congress workshop began with two short videos to set the scene and get delegates thinking about different ethical dilemmas.

The first video was a TED Talk delivered by Brooke Deterline, Corporate Director for the Heroic Imagination Project, called ‘Creating ethical cultures in business.’

The second clip, another TED Talk by Mel Fugate, highlights the distinction between the lower bar of what is legal (the test of smarts) versus what is ethical (the test of character).

(Note: the embedded videos show the most relevant snippet of each presentation; you can view the full videos on YouTube).

The Congress workshop then moved on to a four member panel for some of their personal insights. The panel comprised  Michael Catchpole, AusIMM CEO; Diana Drinkwater, AusIMM Board Director; Kate Hobbs, AusIMM WIMnet Chair; and Eric Grimsey, AusIMM Ethics Committee Chair.

Opinions and examples surrounding professional ethics shared by our panel included:

  • That a significant portion of working time is taken up with dealing with matters involving ethics.
  • Much of this time is consumed dealing with personal interactions in the workplace – and a number of cases involve aggressive, disrespectful behaviours, and even harassment.
  • People have been observed acting, or seeking to act, where they clearly have a real or perceived conflict of interest that has not been declared, and therefore not been managed, up front.
  • ‘Drawing the line’ between when to let an issue go unchallenged, and when to act. The example given involved a highly suitable female candidate who was overlooked for a promotion in favour of a far less-qualified male.
  • The perception that young professionals believe their opinions will be undervalued; it is not just leaders but everyone who should contribute to the ethical culture.
  • How it is illegal to discriminate due to pregnancy and parental status; however, this has been observed via redundancy and lack of promotion opportunities – or an unconscious bias that can be displayed by both men and women.
  • Employees generally want to do the right thing by informing their employer of a pregnancy, but often feel they will be discriminated against in some way. And equally, employers want to do the right thing by supporting employees but they may not feel it is in the best interests of the business.
  • Being coerced by employers to downplay or completely ignore risks and poor results, and to focus on or overemphasise the upside of particular results and projects.
  • Having ASX reports ‘modified/sweetened’ and then being asked to sign off as the Competent Person. These behaviours often escalate as time passes, pressure grows and commodity prices fall.
  • The definition of public reports. This has been a common issue for the Complaints and Ethics Committees on a significant number of occasions over the years.
  • In the event of a legal dispute, any of your emails, handwritten notes, diaries and publications can be subpoenaed by the Magistrate going back for decades. Something to keep in mind when communicating to colleagues, and how any and all of this material that you believe to be private may be read out in a court of law or otherwise made public.
  • The AusIMM Code of Ethics represents the value set which underpins the role of the Institute in enhancing the minerals profession and benefiting the community. Most personal value sets would largely overlap with the AusIMM Code, but as a member you need to be aware of the specific AusIMM Code.
  • The best defence against unethical behaviour is to know your value set and, where possible, act in accordance with it.
  • Many unethical behaviours observed by the Ethics Committee have been regarded as careless, with people not understanding the Code of Ethics, or people placed in situational pressure. In some more extreme cases there are direct or deliberate offences, such as falsifying documents, and/or claiming a report to be JORC compliant when it clearly is not.
  • Most members set out to do the right thing but can get caught in situations where there is a likelihood of making unethical decisions and there is a need for courage to deal with these situations.
  • A good test is to ask yourself: What would I do if I did not fear the outcome? What would I do if I considered this in terms of my value set, and as a professional, in terms of the Code of Ethics? What are the wider and longer term outcomes of any decision I make? Is a compromise of my principles worth it?’
  • By consciously broadening the situation away from a decision dominated by economic or other workplace stress and referring to the Code of Ethics, you give yourself, as an inherently good person, a reasonable chance to act ethically.

After the panel session, the conference delegates then reflected on their own personal experiences and the challenging situations they had seen throughout their own lives and careers, how these situations were managed, and what more AusIMM members can do as leaders. Furthermore, we also considered the lessons we can take back to the workplace, and to those members we represent, and the tools or support we need to do this. Many and varied frank contributions as well as common themes resulted, including:

  • legal versus ethical behaviour
  • conflicts of interest in various forms (real and perceived)
  • ethics is everyone’s responsibility
  • the effects of aggressive and bullying behaviour,
  • discrimination in all forms (and the danger of reverse discrimination including imposing quotas or in other conscious or unconscious ways)
  • no professional – regardless of race, religion, sexuality, limitations in physical ability – wants to be offered a job or promotion that was not based on merit and merit alone.

The session was designed to challenge every one of us on how we pursue the best in ethical professionalism in our work and our roles within the Institute.

None of us claim to be experts on ethics, but we are all professionals who have to make judgements of an ethical nature all of the time – sometimes unconsciously, and sometimes with great deliberation.

The measure of success for this session was to spend some quality time exploring these themes and thinking about how we can support members at every stage of their career with their approach to ethics. The workshop certainly got delegates thinking, judging by the many animated conversations that occurred in the break that followed immediately after the workshop.

As leaders, it’s our role to create and reinforce the ethical cultures that we aspire to see in our workplaces and within the AusIMM.


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