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Dear Dr. Jones: Ethical Decision-Making Example 1: A Case of Complicated Communication

MAY 22 2017

Hi folks! Welcome to the second installment in this series focused on ethics and decision-making in youth mentoring programs.

First, I want to thank everyone for clicking, reading, sharing, and responding to the first post…which you can find here if you missed it. Today’s post is likely to have fewer gratuitous animal pics than the last one, BUT I am excited to get to our first user-submitted ethical dilemma!

I hope you’re excited, too.

Seriously, though, this is a tough one—and I chose it because it highlights a few important issues that come up regularly across a wide range of programs. Here’s what our guest contributor wrote:

“We recently had a parent request a mentor for her daughter who is verbally challenged. The daughter speaks primarily through an iPad. Our community-based program is small (50 matches) and very rural. Our program policies state we don’t discriminate on physical limitations. Can we offer a worthwhile experience for the youth and mentor? Are we doing a disservice by telling the child and parent we will serve them when we need to train the mentor and staff extensively to work with the youth?”

Excellent questions and a very challenging situation indeed. Like most ethical dilemmas, there are a number of ethical principles in conflict here, and several perspectives—both individual and organizational—that are important to consider along the way. However, before discussing the dilemma and using the framework, there’s one ethical decision-making suggestion I want to briefly discuss.

Slow Down and Keep an Open Mind

People are natural problem-solvers, and I know from experience that people working in social services and nonprofits are among the most skilled and creative problem-solvers around. In fact, it is possible that many of you read the ethical dilemma above and thought something like:

“I know what I would do…”

“It seems like this program would have to…”

“I think the most important thing in this situation is…”

However, I want to suggest that we slow down, resist the urge to solve the problem right away, and consider more deliberately the elements that are present in the contributor’s story. To be clear, I am not suggesting that we should ignore our intuition or experience—indeed, our gut-reactions to challenging situations are often helpful and can sometimes be right on the money. On the other hand, our initial responses can also limit our ability or willingness to consider alternate perspectives or collect additional information. It is much more difficult to change your mind once it is made up, so I would encourage users of this framework to prepare for Step 1 by acknowledging their initial reactions and intuitive responses, but maintaining an open-mind as much as possible.

Ok, now let’s jump in to today’s dilemma.

Stage 1: Principles

The first step in the stage-based model is “Principles,” the process of identifying the ethical principles that are relevant to the situation. Remember that prioritizing comes later in the process, so don’t worry about ranking the principles or considering their relative importance at this point. This stage is a brainstorm…be as thorough as you can. Please refer to the diagram of ethical principles that can be used as a kind of menu of options.

In the current dilemma, some of the principles that stand out to me are nondiscrimination, self-determination, honesty, professional competence, and information and referral of resources.

Nondiscrimination is relevant because the program has a stated commitment to serving youth regardless of physical limitations. From my perspective, nondiscrimination is also important because youth with disabilities often experience discrimination and exclusion in other areas of their lives that may make the presence of a mentor particularly important.

Self-determination is the ability to make important decisions for oneself. In the current situation, self-determination would mean the youth with verbal challenges would be given the opportunity to decide for herself whether participation is a good idea given the concerns of the program.

Honesty is a relevant principle in this case because it would require the agency to be clear and straightforward with the youth and her family about their concerns, the possible challenges associated with her participation, the resources that are available to help a mentoring relationship to be successful, and any other information that is relevant to the situation.

Professional competence is the judicious use of one’s skills and knowledge for the benefit of clients or community. Competence means having the appropriate skills and resources to serve a client well, but it also means recognizing when the skills and/or resources are not adequate to provide effective services.

Finally, information and referral of resources suggests that the program has an obligation to help the youth and her family fully understand the implications of participation, and to suggest possible alternative resources if the youth is not provided a mentor through the program.

Please keep in mind that these are the principles I identified in my initial consideration of the dilemma, and it is likely that you and your colleagues would identify other principles that are relevant. This is why collaboration is always preferable to using the framework alone—more information and more perspectives provide more possibilities to consider.

Stage 2: Perspectives

So, whose perspectives should be considered during the decision-making process in this case? Some obvious ones are the youth, her mother, and the potential mentor who would be matched with the youth. Perhaps less obvious but also potentially important to consider are the perspectives of the program staff who would be supporting the relationship, the agency, and other youth with disabilities in the community who might seek a mentor through the program.

The perspectives of the youth and her mother are important because they are the ones requesting service, and being turned away would potentially be disappointing and could be a missed opportunity for the youth to connect with a mentor. A potential mentor would have the added challenge of learning to communicate effectively with the youth, but a mentor may also view this as a unique opportunity to learn about the challenges of communicating in a different way and to help foster confidence and resilience in the girl.

Program staff would likely be challenged as well, with additional responsibilities related to understanding the girl’s unique needs, screening potential volunteers, and ultimately training someone to communicate effectively with her and her mother. The agency must consider the implications of deciding to provide or not provide a mentor for the girl, since this decision could set a precedent for how similar situations are handled in the future. The agency may decide to make a strong commitment to nondiscrimination and manage the challenges as they come, or they may be cautious and refer the youth to another program that is better equipped to handle the youth’s special needs, if other services are available in this rural community. Finally, the decision-makers should consider the perspective of other youth with disabilities in the community, who may be encouraged or discouraged from seeking a mentor depending on the outcome of this case.

Stage 3: Priorities

The priorities stage is where analyzing, ranking, and evaluating the relative importance of principles and perspectives take place. In the current dilemma, one could argue that the principles of nondiscrimination and self-determination, especially considered from the perspective of the youth and her mother, are the most important and compelling priorities. This point of view privileges the right of the youth, with the support of her mother, to decide what is in her best interest. It is also consistent with the agency nondiscrimination policy, an ethical standard so important to the organization that it is explicitly named and described.

Another plausible way of prioritizing the principles and perspectives in this case is to focus on the importance of honesty, professional competence, and referral of the client to other resources. This point of view may require the agency to inform the youth and her mother that it is likely to be difficult to find a volunteer who is up to the challenge of being matched given the training and extra support that will be required. It also provides support for the argument that it is not in the child’s best interest to be matched if the agency does not have the proper expertise and resources in place to support the relationship. This perspective, finally, would compel the agency to do its best to refer the youth and her mother to other, more appropriate resources to meet their needs.

Of course, these are not the only ways to prioritize the principles and perspectives in this case, but these two competing viewpoints illustrate the possibility that multiple approaches can be “ethical” and lead to very different outcomes. This is a good time to restate that there is no “correct” solution to any ethical dilemma, but instead the goal should be the identification of thoughtful, informed, ethically-sound options that have been carefully considered and discussed.

Stage 4: Possible Outcomes

The last stage before a decision is made, considering possible outcomes, provides time and space to talk through hypothetical decisions, examining each option for its relative advantages and risks. Two common ways of exploring options are using “If…then…” statements and using a decisional balance sheet—otherwise known as “a list of pros and cons.”

In this case, to put it in terms of “If…then…” statements, if the program proceeds with matching the youth with a mentor, then the wishes of the youth and her mother will have been honored and the organization’s commitment to nondiscrimination will have been upheld. Further, if the match is made, then it will require additional training and resources for staff members and the mentor, perhaps taking time, attention, and resources away from other priorities within the agency.

On the other hand, if the match is not made, then the program will avoid the issue of additional training and resources that the match would likely require, the program may avoid disappointing the youth and her mother by not being able to find a mentor with the skills or willingness to be effective, and the organization could potentially help the girl find a more appropriate and accessible program in which to participate. Additionally, if the match is not made, then the program may compromise or at least appear to compromise its commitment to not discriminating based on physical disability, potentially disappointing the youth and her mother, and perhaps unintentionally signaling to others in the community that youth with disabilities are not good candidates for this community-based mentoring program.

These two paragraphs of “If…then…” statements could easily be converted to the format of a decisional balance sheet in order to provide a visual aid for discussion. It can be useful to go a step further than just listing “pros and cons” by rating the relative importance of each factor on the list. For example, “pros” and “cons” that are particularly important can be labeled with a symbol (+ or -) to reflect their significance.


As I mentioned last time, it is not my intention to offer solutions for the ethical dilemmas presented and discussed here. I clearly do not have enough information about this specific case nor enough context about the program, family, or community in which this situation occurred to suggest one option or another. However, as a way of eliciting more ideas and insight about how this case could potentially be addressed, I would like to invite each of you to offer your thoughts in the comments section below. What else would be important to consider from your perspective? What are some principles and perspectives I may have overlooked? Whose interests should be prioritized, and what kinds of outcomes might we expect? This framework relies on the collaboration of professionals sharing ideas, values, and beliefs—it would be great to hear from you to add more depth to this discussion.

In the end, I believe this case example is worthwhile to consider, and I hope it served to illustrate the utility and value of approaching ethical dilemmas systematically, collaboratively, and with an open mind. Following this kind of comprehensive process will ensure that ethically challenging situations are handled thoughtfully, that decision-makers are well-informed, and that the decisions that are ultimately made reflect the values of the organization and the profession.

If you are inspired to share your own experience with an ethical dilemma in youth mentoring, please submit it HERE. I will select another compelling case example in the next few weeks to analyze and discuss using the framework—and it could be yours!

Finally, I’d like to extend a very special “thank you” to our first contributor for sharing her experience with us—and again thanks to everyone who has read, shared, and responded to the column so far. The response has been amazing. Let’s keep the conversation going!

See you next time!

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