Codes of Ethics


Codes of ethics are institutional guidelines used to reinforce ethical conduct (Souryal, 2014). Codes are the written rules governing behavior based on moral values. They contain mandatory provisions and target guidelines that help to lessen the burden of gray areas. They are typically general in nature to account for a variety of situations and circumstances. Codes of ethics have two purposes: They provide moral guidelines and professional standards of conduct, and they define professional behavior to promote a sense of pride, tolerance, and responsibility among professionals. The professional codes hold people accountable for proper performance and devotion to honesty and obligation. The codes serve as a basis for disciplinary action and are regulated by laws of the legal and scientific communities. They are concerned with legal and moral behavior both personally and professionally. Forensic science is a profession in which members have a social impact; thus, personal integrity of those working in the field cannot be easily separated from the work they do. This is often seen in a court of law when lawyers attempt to discredit scientists based on the factors previously and beyond their work. Typically, the personal aspects cover more than what is legally expected of members, such as personal morality, honesty, truthfulness, and virtue. Codes of ethics should dissuade people from acting unethically. Professions, professional organizations, and/or agencies should provide general procedures for investigations of unethical behavior, ways in which general codes will be applied to specific situations, and potential consequences for unethical actions.

Some sources give the impression that, because there are so few established formal ethical codes, ethics are not generally considered important to forensic scientists, which is not the case. Although having a code of ethics indicates the credibility and willingness of organizations to take responsibility, not having a code does not indicate irresponsibility of the profession. Many times the provisions set forth in a code of ethics are incorporated into codes of conduct of an agency or group. In this case, having a code of ethics is redundant, though the group is still providing the guidelines in an alternate format. Some professions feel as though codes of ethics are worthless because they are vague and irrelevant. A common misconception regarding codes of ethics is that an action occurs frequently if it is addressed by a code. Though some codes state the perceived or previously encountered problems of a profession, those actions are not necessarily the most frequent but may be the situations the profession most wants to prevent from occurring or situations that could be viewed as the major threats. The codes are composed of general procedures and principles to maintain the quality of the profession. In most cases, a person will receive support from an employer if he or she applies the code of ethics to a situation and can justify the course of action. A reliance on ethical guidelines provides support for decisions that otherwise would be difficult to defend. Employees tend to find ethical management, the existence of codes of ethics, a culture of openness and integrity, punishment for unethical behavior, and reinforcement of ethical behavior as the most important features of ethical professional cultures. Though they are necessary for professional practice, simply having codes of ethics is not sufficient to ensure that people will always practice the right actions.

Support of ethical behaviors by the profession is important in upholding codes of ethics. Support is gained when proper procedures, such as a process for investigating claims, are in place to maintain the effectiveness of the code. Proper procedures include methods for filing complaints, receiving complaints, investigating complaints, and reviewing complaints. The procedure for filing a complaint should be straightforward as to not intimidate the complainant but not too lenient so that people abuse the procedure to harass others. Some groups employ anonymous reporting and find that employee anonymity can support a culture of integrity. Mechanisms to decide if unethical behavior has occurred are important. The organization must decide how to weigh nonfactual matters such as statements of opinion or personal values and communicate a timeline for investigation of complaints. In addition, organizations should have procedures for hearings and appeals processes. The solutions to problems must comply with the established standards of the profession and/or the organization. Groups should have a procedure in place to fairly inform members of occurrences of unethical behavior. The claims and results of investigations are important so members can adapt their methods accordingly and have an awareness of what issues occurred, and the profession can take steps toward prevention of future issues. Finally, when professionals recognize that management values the highest standards, codes may be used to their fullest potential. Though all of the major forensic science professional organizations employ codes of ethics, few ethical complaints are brought to the attention to members of the organizations.

An additional means of support for codes of ethics is record keeping. To review the qualitative aspects, an organization may develop an inventory of ethical problems, which includes the details of what occurred and the resulting outcome or consequences. Such an inventory will help the organization to determine the variety and severity of occurrences. These records may also help the group to develop hypotheses about the origins of the misconduct for the sake of prevention. Perhaps an organization would like to know the relative frequency of problems. Record keeping serves as a good judge as to where the profession is and where it needs to go regarding ethical conduct. Probably the most significant means of information tracking in forensic science is proficiency testing. Scientists are at times afraid to show their own levels of ability to the public; however, the tests are necessary to ensure the quality of the scientist, his or her agency, and as a way to remain transparent to the public as part of the scientific culture.

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