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Dear Dr. Jones: An Ethics Advice Column for Mentoring Professionals

APRIL 3, 2017
BY: KEVIN JONES, PH.D.

A blog about ethical dilemmas in mentoring? I was intrigued by the idea, but I also had some reservations. Blogs are fun, catchy, personal, creative. And they often feature pictures like this:

And ethical dilemmas? They are not cute. They are by definition complicated and confusing. They can also be difficult, scary, and controversial. For folks working with youth, ethical dilemmas can be particularly challenging because a child’s well-being, or the well-being of an entire organization, is likely to be affected. The stakes are high, and decisions are not easy.

Consider the following story that was shared with me by a social worker who was doing mentoring with high school students in a school setting:

A 15 year-old youth tells his mentor that he is working late night shifts at a country club to help his mother—an undocumented immigrant struggling to find work—pay bills and support his younger siblings. The mentee’s work is a violation of child labor laws and is negatively affecting his attendance and performance in school. On the other hand, the income provided by the country club job is currently keeping the family housed and fed. The mentor approaches the program staff for advice. What should he do?

With just the few sentences of information provided, it is clear that this situation meets the definition of an ethical dilemma: a complex situation in which a decision must be made, but two or more ethical principles are in conflict with each other. In this case, revealing the youth’s employment situation may help protect him from exploitation, but it also violates his privacy. It protects his right to education, but possibly compromises his family’s housing and food security. The social worker was genuinely and understandably concerned that making a quick or uninformed decision could have dire consequences for the youth and his family. He needed a tool that would help him and his colleagues make a well-informed and ethically sound decision in a very difficult situation.

This blog series is intended to provide practical guidance, advice, and tools for successfully and systematically addressing ethical dilemmas in youth mentoring programs. We’ll be tackling everything from interpersonal conflicts to cultural concerns to policy issues at the national level. We’ll consider issues facing mentoring programs large and small that operate in urban and rural communities, as well as programs run through schools, hospitals, churches, and more.

So, while this blog series is not likely to rival “The Fluffington Post” for feel-good indulgence, I do believe it is important. That’s why I’m here, and I hope you will find the resources I have to share with you compelling and useful.

Submit your dilemmas to “Dear Dr. Jones…”

Before I introduce the ethical decision-making framework I’ll be using in future posts, let me describe how the “advice column” part of this blog works. Starting TODAY, you (and anyone involved in the youth mentoring field…but especially you) are invited to submit an ethical dilemma that you have experienced or observed in your role as a mentoring professional, volunteer, board member, parent, teacher, etc. Then, every few weeks, I will select an ethical dilemma that is particularly compelling and analyze it using “the framework”—demonstrating the decision-making process and making recommendations for others who may face similar situations.

Submitted ethical dilemmas should be concise—maybe a couple of paragraphs—and should provide enough detail to make the nature of the situation clear. To protect privacy, please do not use real names of people or organizations in your submissions.

You can click HERE to enter a submission, and then just click the “SUBMIT” button at the bottom of the page. If your dilemma was submitted successfully, a confirmation page will appear to notify you. Due to limitations of time and space, I will not be able to publish a response to every submission. However, all submissions will also be considered for publication in an ethical decision-making “workbook” that is currently in progress. Please feel free to contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. for more information about that project if you are interested.

Again, ethical dilemmas can be submitted by filling out the online form HERE.

The Framework

Now to “the framework.” The rest of this first post will provide a brief overview of how this new ethical decision-making process was developed, and how you can use it in your work with youth, volunteers, programs, policies, or any aspect of mentoring that presents ethical challenges. The framework is comprised of two parts: 1) a diagram that lists and categorizes ethical principles that are relevant to the mentoring field, and 2) a stage-based model that guides the user through the steps of collaborative decision-making to arrive at an informed and ethically sound decision.

The “Diagram of Ethical Principles,” (shown below in Figure 1) is the result of collecting and synthesizing the professional codes of ethics from more than a dozen organizations representing professions related to the mentoring field, including social work, psychology, education, counseling, medicine, public health, and others. The multidisciplinary nature of the model means that more users from more professional backgrounds will find ethical principles that resonate with them and their work. It also means that professionals from one profession will have a chance to explore and consider some ethical principles that may be less common in their daily work, but relevant to others who participate in mentoring in other fields.

Figure 1. Diagram of Ethical Principles

The principles are arranged into four overlapping categories (Professionalism, Boundaries, Social Justice, and Culture), that help describe the nature of ethical issues that arise and their relationship to other important ethical concepts. This collection of principles is intended to be used like a menu for the user to consult and draw from as an ethical dilemma is considered and discussed.

The two larger ovals that are “orbiting” the model’s four core categories represent safety and relationship, which are essential and, in my view, nonnegotiable aspects of youth mentoring work. That is, relationship is what mentoring is all about, and safety is one aspect of a youth’s experience that we should not be willing to compromise in the interest of other principles. It should be noted that although this diagram is comprehensive, it does not include every possible ethical principle, so users should continue to refer to their own professional experience and other sources of information when using this tool.

The “Stage-Based Model” (shown below in Figure 2) includes five stages that can guide users through a step-by-step, beginning-to-end decision-making process in any ethically challenging situation. The process was inspired by decision-making models from a variety of fields and sources, but was developed to include elements that are important to youth mentoring in particular. For example, because mentoring relationships often involve many different people and perspectives (mentor, mentee, families, agency, etc.), this stage-based model suggests that information gathering and consultation with others is necessary throughout the entire process.

Figure 2. A Stage-Based Model of Ethical Decision-Making

The first four stages of the stage-based model can be thought of as “The Four P’s” of decision-making in mentoring. The first stage, “Principles,” is an exploration of the ethical principles (from the model above) that are relevant to the ethical dilemma under consideration. Principles should not be ranked or evaluated at this stage, just listed and described for consideration in the following stages.

The second stage asks users to identify the “Perspectives,” or points of view, of all parties (individuals, groups, and institutions) that are directly or indirectly involved in the situation. Like the first stage, the Perspectives stage should be a brainstorm rather than an evaluation of which perspectives are more or less relevant or important.

The third stage, “Priorities,” marks the beginning of the analytical process. In this stage, users will engage in discussions about which principles are most important to consider in this case, and whose perspectives should take precedence in the decision-making process. Because ethical dilemmas are important, sensitive, and often emotional, it is important for the decision-making group to be familiar with active listening and nonviolent communication skills.

The fourth stage, “Possible Outcomes,” is an opportunity to consider the relative advantages and disadvantages of proposed decisions or courses of action. Making a list of “pros and cons” for each option is a simple and effective way of considering consequences. It also gives everyone a chance to genuinely critique their own ideas, and recognize that every possible decision in an ethical dilemma has likely benefits and challenges.

Once a group has navigated “The Four P’s” and a decision is made, the final stage is to “Evaluate” the outcomes of the decision and use the information gained in future decision-making. What worked well and what didn’t? What were the unintended or unexpected consequences of the actions taken? The answers to these questions can help professionals and organizations continually improve and become more confident and consistent in their handling of future ethical dilemmas.

A few final tips for using the framework

Ethical dilemmas vary greatly in scope and dynamics, so there must be some flexibility on the part of the group charged with making decisions. One ethical dilemma may involve only a few people and a couple of well-defined ethical issues, in which case it may (or may not) be possible to arrive at a well-informed decision in a short period of time. Another dilemma may involve a wide range of people, agencies, and policies, and therefore will likely take more time and effort to work through. I worked with a state-level mentoring partnership on a dilemma related to ethical sources of funding, and the committee took several weeks to work through each stage in the process to ensure they had as much information and cooperation from members as possible. There is no prescribed amount of time for this process. The goal is to have a decision that is thoughtful, informed, and consistent with the ethical principles of the organization and the profession.

It is also important to recognize that this process is not intended to yield a “right” answer. Instead, it will help decision-makers think thoroughly and comprehensively through issues and identify a range of options to choose from. It is likely that any given situation will have multiple “solutions” that are ethically sound and consistent. And since our personal perspectives on any issue are influenced by our own beliefs and values, it is necessary for group members to explore and understand their own biases as the decision-making process moves along.

Finally, I’d like to stress that this process is much more likely to be successful and satisfying if it is done collaboratively. While a single person or small group may be responsible for making the final decision, a collaborative process provides the benefit of multiple perspectives on the same situation. When decision-making is collaborative, decision-makers can be more confident that their options have been thoughtfully and thoroughly considered. Ok, I know that was a lot to think about, but for sticking through it, you’ve earned this:

Puppies
Source: http://imgur.com/gallery/w3rWBKE

I look forward to our future discussions about ethics in the world of youth mentoring. To get the conversation started, please don’t forget to submit your ethical dilemmas HERE!

Thanks for reading, and see you next time!

Dr. Jones

Dr. JonesKevin Jones, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor and Practicum Director in the Dorothy Day Social Work Program and a Dundon-Berchtold Fellow in Applied Ethics at University of Portland in Portland, OR. Dr. Jones is also available for technical assistance related to ethical decision-making through the OJJDP National Mentoring Resource Center. Submit a request for no-cost TA for your youth mentoring program here.

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