Professional Code of Ethics: Some Laws Meant to be Broken

May 21 , 2022
By Tigist Solomon

Most professions, including those in medicine, psychology and social work, have rules of governance, procedures and a code of ethics that all practitioners must obey and respect. The rule implies that professions must be practised in accordance with the code of ethics set by the governing body. Otherwise, it would be considered a violation of regulations and the profession is challenged with the risk of losing its acceptance and validity by both internal and external parties and professionals.

For practitioners to apply the code of ethics of their respective profession, educational institutions, including colleges and universities, train students expecting to specialise in the field. For example, if we take social workers and psychiatrists, practitioners have a responsibility to maintain the privacy and confidentiality of clients. In addition, these professionals have an obligation to integrity, objectivity, professional competence and professional behaviour.

Adhering to each professional code of ethics may be difficult for practitioners and clients. A good example is when there are conditions and obligations for breaches of client confidentiality by social workers and psychiatrists. I once visited a family headed by a single mother as part of my studies at Addis Abeba University. I had a field assignment where I had to do a family needs assessment. The mother had five children and divorced the father because he was an alcoholic and did not contribute much to the household expenses. She added that because her ex-husband often came home drunk, he had disrespectful manners.

Once, when the mother left for work, he came home early and raped her 16-year-old daughter. Although the mother found out about the situation later, no one else in the family knew anything about what happened. The mother decided to divorce her husband and raise the children alone.

During the interview with the mother, for the purposes of assessing the needs of the family, she preferred to remain silent about the fact that her daughter had been raped by her biological father. However, when I went to connect her with social workers in her wereda for possible housing support and opportunities to rebuild her family, she whispered in my ear that she was afraid to talk about what her ex-husband did to her daughter.

As a social work student, I myself had some responsibility for what I had learned about the relationship between her daughter and her ex-husband. There are times when maintaining client confidentiality and privacy comes into question. For the safety of the family and respect for the code of ethics of the profession, such situations are to be discussed. Therefore, I had the responsibility to inform the social workers, who could help, despite my obligation to respect the client's confidentiality and privacy. The code of ethics also allows such exceptions.

Other obligations to breach the code of ethics may exist. For example, romantic relationships between practitioners and clients are restricted. The rule helps the profession remain rational and neutral when offering services to clients. Nevertheless, incidents where clients or practitioners experience unexpected feelings towards one another during counselling are common but not frequent. When such situations occur, both the client and the practitioner are advised not to be hurt by the feelings and to be brave enough with self-control due to the code of ethics.

Nevertheless, the sentiment expressed can be challenging to control for both practitioners and clients. Unlikely, not all clients are aware of these codes of ethics which prohibit relationships between clients and practitioners.

In cases such as the breach of confidentiality with the father who raped his daughter, there must be exceptions where code of ethics is concerned or the principles must be held above the rule itself. We must ask ourselves what the acceptable exceptions in these circumstances would be and how to manage them.

PUBLISHED ON May 21,2022 [ VOL 23 , NO 1151]

Tigist Solomon is passionate about socio-economic issues, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa. She can be reached at

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