Ethics and Professional Responsibility

Ethics and professional responsibility are essential when certain individuals provide services to the public. When a professional breaches these standards, they can cause harm and damages. They may be held accountable and legally liable.

What Constitutes a Profession?

Professionals have certain responsibilities when it comes to doing their work, but to understand professional ethics, it’s important to know what a profession is. Not all jobs or careers are considered professions. A profession has certain characteristics:[1]

  • A group of individuals with the same occupation
  • Specialized training, such as a medical school for doctors
  • Adherence to specific standards and to work in a way that is moral and meets certain obligations
  • Providing specialized services to the public that have a greater purpose than simply making money

There may be some disagreement about which jobs or careers constitute a profession, but there is general consensus on many professions. Professionals include lawyers, physicians, teachers, engineers, and accountants, among many others.

What is Ethics?

Ethics is the study of standards of right and wrong. It describes how people should behave to be moral, although there is no connection to religion. Ethics dictates the obligations people have to not cause harm to others, to uphold rights, to be fair, and to benefit society.[2]

What is Ethics and Professional Responsibility?

The public expects a certain level of responsibility from professionals who provide them with specialized services. For instance, a lawyer has a responsibility to provide sound legal advice based on their education, training, and knowledge of the law.

Professionals have individual responsibilities and obligations to those they serve, other professionals, employers, and society in general. Individual professional responsibility includes considering the consequences of their actions and decisions. Failing to meet these responsibilities can cause harm to others, and that can lead to negligence and liability for damages.

Professionals are also expected to adhere to general and industry-specific ethics. Most professions have a code of ethics by which they operate. A professional code of ethics outlines specific standards and guidelines for every member of that group. It dictates how to engage in the profession with integrity and best practices.

Some industries or even individual companies have voluntary codes of ethics. Other industries are bound to a code of ethics by law. For instance, banking and financial professionals must follow laws that guide ethical practices.

Who is Held to These Standards?

Every member of society is held to a certain basic standard of personal responsibility and reasonable behavior. For instance, you are expected to behave reasonably when operating your vehicle by not being distracted. If you use your phone while driving and cause harm to someone in an accident, you can be held liable for their damages.

Professionals are held to more specific standards of responsibility and their codes of ethics. The individuals that are obligated to a code of ethics depends on the type of work and employer. For instance, lawyers must be a member of their state bar association to practice, and the bar has a code of ethics. This means all lawyers must follow that code.

An employee at a company who is not considered a professional may still have to follow a code of ethics. Employers may voluntarily set these codes for their workers to create a more ethical work environment.

Why Are Ethics and Professional Responsibility Important?

People receiving services from professionals expect to be treated fairly and be given good advice, treatment, and care. Professionals have specialized expertise and training, and therefore have a higher obligation to provide ethical services.

Professional responsibility and ethics are important for several reasons. Following a code of ethics as well as individual personal responsibility during the course of work benefits everyone:

  • A code of ethics supports the success of a profession or business.
  • It protects the public receiving services from a professional.
  • Ethics enhances the quality of a profession and its standing and status in society.
  • Ethics also supports people within the profession by providing guiding standards.

When professionals veer from their responsibilities or codes of ethics, there can be several negative consequences. For example, the first rule of conduct listed by the American Bar Association is competence.[3] If a lawyer does not provide competent advice or representation, a client may lose the opportunity to get justice or recover damages. In criminal cases, they may go to jail unnecessarily.

What Can I Do if Someone Has Violated Their Professional Ethics?

Professionals are held to a high standard. If you received services from a professional and they violated ethics or did not act in a reasonably responsible way, you may be able to take legal action. If the violations resulted in damages, you could potentially file a civil lawsuit.

This will allow you to hold that professional accountable and recover damages for the harm caused. For instance, if a doctor violates the ethical code, it could result in inadequate or inappropriate treatment. This can cause you to be injured or to become sicker, which results in significant economic and non-economic damages.

If you have experienced poor treatment from a professional and believe they breached ethics or professional responsibility, contact a lawyer. Some lawyers and firms specialize in holding professionals accountable and can advise you on any possible legal action.

  1. Illinois Institute of Technology. (2008, March 12). Professional Ethics.
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  2. Velasquez, M., Andre, C., Shanks, T., and Meyer, M.J. (2010, January 1). What is Ethics? Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
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  3. American Bar Association. (2020). Model Rules of Professional Conduct – Table of Contents.
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