I recently had the unfortunate experience of cleaning up after another “Macintosh consultant” who, by all evidence, seems to have misled and taken advantage of a client. Things were not set up according to standard practices, equipment was purchased but not delivered, passwords and configuration information was not documented, and the entire relationship seemed designed to keep the client dependent. This prompted me to think back on my own code of ethics, and appreciate the role ethics plays in all I do.
Codes of Ethics and Why They Matter
Most codes of ethics are developed and adopted by professional associations as a way to police themselves. Therapists and lawyers have codes of ethics, as do librarians, CPA’s and doctors. These are distinct from legal statute and regulation in that they function primarily as guidelines enforced by professional censure, not law. Since computer consultants have technical certifications but no special governmental licensing, it is something of a wild west. Anyone can call themselves a “computer consultant” and there is scant recourse for deceptive practices.
One of the great ironies of trustworthy people is that, for the most part, they don’t expect you to trust them. They welcome second opinions, questions and challenges, as a way to demonstrate their reasoning and competence. A good code of ethics and the “best practices” it encourages not only protect the client against incompetence and graft, but also provide a set of guidelines to encourage more professional practice. Almost every professional organization I have ever been part of has some code of ethics, as I do for myself in my business.
Key Aspects of Ethical Responsibility
Each organization phrases its code of ethics, generally, but some things are common to almost all code of ethics.
Duty of Competence
An ethical consultant is technically competent, and never misrepresents their skill or abilities. My own rule of thumb is that I try never to undertake any task that I don’t feel I have a two-thirds or better chance of completing sucessfully. If a task is outside my normal scope of practice or experience, I refer it to someone else or tell the client that it is a borderline case so that they can decide. The duty of competence also requires that the consultant stay abreast of developments and have a program for testing and improving their skills, through continuing education and periodic certification.
Duty of Honesty
Implicit in the duty of competence is the duty of honesty, of being forthright with the client as to the options available and our own best judgement as to the the likely success or utility of any option. Frequently I have counseled clients out of plans that would have been financially beneficial to me, but were not in the client’s long-term interest. If asked for my personal opinion, I will usually give it, but my professional duty is to honestly convey the technical issues as I understand them in a way the client can understand, and not to intimidate or bedazzle them with jargon. Clear and accurate communication is crucial.
Avoiding Conflicts of Interest
An ethical consultant understands exactly who they are working for, and clarifies that as necessary. Referral fees are a common thing in the computer industry, whereby someone pays a commission or kickback to another for recommending or delivering a customer. I tend not to take part in these at any level, or to disclose relationships when they exist. When recommending other vendors or options I usually try to provide at least three quality options, rather than substituting my preferences for the client’s best judgement.
A lot of retail stores have service departments whose primary job seems to be selling new boxes of equipment or software, or creating a dependency relationship where the client doesn’t really have an option to go elsewhere. This is one of the reasons I do not deal in hardware or software sales, although I am happy to recommend multiple vendors or to purchase things at reimbursement cost only.
If I get a kickback for selling Microsoft Office or am expected to sell a certain number of Mobile Me subscriptions, it is more difficult to be honest and “think outside the box” for the best long-term interests of the client.
Respect for Privacy and Duty of Confidentiality
Because I am often invited into people’s homes and necessarily come into contact with their private data, it is important for me to be circumspect in what I notice and absolutely discreet in what I say. It always delights me when two clients whom I know are acquainted find out (after several years) that they share me as a computer consultant. If I work for you, that is between you and I, and I do not share that fact with others. If the courts would like to subpoena my testimony, they are welcome to do so, but otherwise it is my professional duty to respect and protect your privacy, including business information and processes.
It may seem odd to have to say, but I try to obey the law. This means that I will not help you to pirate software or support illegal software. Although I am happy to help you monitor computer use for your minor children, in Oregon (where there are no community-property laws) I will not help you to spy on your spouse or break the encryption on a wireless network to get free Internet. There are often technical ways to accomplish what you want to do within the law, but please don’t expect me to help you break the law. Just because something is technically possible does not mean it is legal or ethical, and I am glad to explain what I will do, what I won’t do, and why.
Preserving Client’s Independence and Autonomy
Every technician or professional has ways that they prefer to do things, but there are also “standard practices” and ways of doing things that are generally accepted and understood. In performing work for a client, I have a responsibility to do so in a way that will be clear to other professionals and which does not make the client dependent on me or my special knowledge to access your own data. As much as possible, I do not not want to know your passwords and I want to leave documentation so that another technician who may come after me will understand what I have done. If someone else can do something less expensively or more competently than I can, I will refer you to them or at least make you aware of this. You may choose to go with me for various reasons, but it is crucial that you make an independent and informed choice. A client’s data is the client’s data, and the client should always have full access to their own data and an understanding of how it is stored.
Client hardware and property (including data) should never be taken off-site without the client’s knowledge and permission.
One Sample Code from 2001
Below is a code of ethics that I suggested to a local group of Macintosh consultants back in 2001. Modeled on the “Scout Law” of 1908, I think it covers all the basics.
- TRUSTWORTHY: Macintosh Professionals preserve client confidentiality, observe the law, refuse bribes of any kind and disclose any possible conflicts of interest to their clients.
- LOYAL: Macintosh Professionals place the client’s best interests first, undertaking projects only within their expertise and referring clients to other professionals or vendors when that best serves the client.
- HELPFUL: Macintosh Professionals work with others and help others improve their skills and abilities in all areas, for the good of humanity, the community, the individual and the Macintosh platform.
- COMPETENT: Macintosh Professionals work to keep their skills current, stay abreast of new technologies and promote competence in all areas, openly admitting when things are outside their expertise and never misrepresenting their understanding of a subject, situation or problem.
- THRIFTY: Macintosh Professionals work to preserve value of old and new equipment, so even older technology remains in use to make a positive difference.
- REVERENT: Macintosh Professionals respect all individuals and do not discriminate based on race, gender, disability, religion or other lifestyle choices. We respect civil liberties, individual privacy, conscience and free speech in all its forms.
Other Codes of Ethics
In the 1984 film Repo Man, the character named Amphetamine Bob conveys a simple code: “I shall not cause harm to any vehicle nor the personal contents thereof. Nor through inaction let that vehicle or the personal contents thereof come to harm,” saying “That’s what I call the Repo Code, kid. Don’t forget it: Etch it in your brain. Not many people got a code to live by anymore.” Below are a few of the other professional codes that inform my understanding of professional ethics.
- American Library Association Code of Ethics
- Code of ethics for the Project Management Institute
- STC Rocky Mountain Chapter code of ethics for communicators
- Independent Computer Consultants Association code of ethics.
- Modified ACN code of ethics at MacSolv and MacTek
There are other considerations of course, but these are the major points, and areas where another “consultant” had let their client down. When engaging a consultant, please consider asking them about their affiliations and code of ethics if those matter to you. I am always prepared to discuss and explain mine at (360) 666-7679.