The latest report in HMI Probation’s always thought-provoking Academic Insights series is particularly interesting. Frederic Reamer, Professor of Social Work at Rhode Island College, writes on ethical humility in probation. Professor Reamer highlights the importance of practitioners’ humility and reflective practice when managing ethical issues in probation.
He says that we can all miss relevant clues and are all fallible to an extent, especially when required to make complex decisions on less than optimum information. Crucially, exercising ethical humility can help practitioners to reflect on their judgments and be non-defensive and open to new ideas, contradictory information, and advice, with a willingness to consult and learn.
The nature of ethical humility
Ethical humility – also known as moral humility – is generally defined as having an awareness of moral fallibility with a number of key qualities important to probation practitioners including:
- making an honest assessment of one’s skills and abilities
- a willingness and ability to acknowledge one’s mistakes
- a genuine openness to new ideas, contradictory information, and advice
- being non-defensive
- keeping one’s self in perspective, with limited self-centeredness
- a keen appreciation of the many ways that people can contribute to the world.
Professor Reamer lists some of the ethical challenges facing probation staff:
- Decisions to disclose confidential information without probationers’ consent to protect a third party from harm,
- Manage conflicts of interest,
- Address a colleague’s unethical conduct, or
- Navigate boundary challenges when probation practitioners and people on probation have overlapping social connections.
I might add that the central probation role of promoting an individual’s desistance while protecting the public has an ethical component with almost every risk management decision balancing the rights of an individual against those of potential victims and wider society.
A conceptual framework
Professor Reamer introduces a conceptual framework for ethical humility (see the infographic reproduced above) which says that it should be viewed through three principal lenses, encompassing humility at the individual, interpersonal and organisational levels.
One of the key challenges for individual probation practitioners is recognising ethical issues that are embedded in their work. Professor Reamer says that moral humility is important to ensure that practitioners approach decisions with a greater amount of caution, acknowledging their own fallibility. He does caution against excessive ethical humility, often due to a practitioner’s low self-esteem , which he says:
“can prevent practitioners from taking a moral position and challenging unethical conduct.”
Professor Reamer sets out the importance of ethical humility for probation practitioners’ relationships with others – especially people on probation and colleagues. The chief benefits include a willingness to hear and consider feedback from others and to treat others’ opinions with respect.
The organisational level
The professor argues that high levels of ethical humility can increase the likelihood that those in leadership positions will foster a moral workplace culture that takes ethics and ethical conduct seriously and values honesty, respect, trustworthiness, integrity, and related virtues.
He says that these principles should be translated into policies and protocols and codes of conduct which can alert practitioners to the complexities of difficult ethical judgments related to confidentiality, conflicts of interest, boundary issues and, a constant ethical concern for contemporary probation staff, the allocation of limited agency resources.
If I was to paraphrase and, no doubt, over-simplify this paper, I would say that the willingness to reflect on the dozens of difficult decisions which probation practitioners take every week is a key strength. Being prepared to acknowledge errors and looking to learn from these mistakes makes for a stronger professional culture.
Of course, the culture of the probation service must encourage this self-reflection and learning and resist the urge to scapegoat practitioners when things go wrong. It goes without saying that in making these complex decisions on the potential future behaviour of human beings, there are no certainties and a degree of ethical humility is not only important for effective practice but vital to a practitioner’s own emotional wellbeing, giving confidence that one tried one’s best to make the right decision.