The Ethics of Practice and Professional Services in Planning Consultancy

The Ethics of Practice and Professional Services in Planning Consultancy


This is an annual event that brings us together as professionals in the field of urban planning. We come here, not for a social purpose, but to continuously add value to ourselves, sharpen our cutting edge in order to make a greater impact in the environment of our nation. Relative to the other two legs (NITP and TOPREC) of our professional tripod, ATOPCON is still young. It is therefore important that the organization be built to full maturity to constitute a strong professional force. One of the necessities of growing is to feed sustainably. The ATOPCON annual workshop is nutrient for the growth of member firms, as well as, individual members who constitute the firms. I therefore wish to express my appreciation for the opportunity given me to be a facilitator in this year’s edition.

The theme for this year’s workshop suggests a note of caution, “Professional Service and practice: The Ethical Dilemma”. The word, dilemma, is an indication of a difficult or perplexing situation or problem. It requires making a choice between equally undesirable alternatives. The word, dilemma, would seem inappropriate based on the meanings which indicate negative scenarios, that is, head you lose, tail you lose. I am not sure that is exactly what we want to portray, except our nation or state of the nation has become utterly depraved that would make us think that ethics is a negative pursuit. My opinion therefore would be to look at it as “Professional Services: The Ethical Necessity, that is, difficult or unpleasant but cannot be avoided, or if you like, the Ethical struggle. The subject of Ethics has somehow assumed an important position in our profession this year 2019 because, coincidentally, the NITP and TOPREC organized 2019 MCPDP  is also discussing the subject of Ethics. This being so, it means that there is something particular about ethics that we need to know or focus on.


The Topic

The topic for this presentation, which I hope will not be boring is Ethics of Practice and Professional Services in Planning Consultancy. I’m saying this because it is not the usual presentation we are used to, where we learn about things, equipment, trending tools and toys, which make our professional work easier. Rather, it is a topic that is about us, discussing our conduct and addressing attitudinal issues which we often do not want hear. Few people like to be caged, but that is what ethics does. It disciplines. It confines one to some pattern of behaviour which in the end should produce a better professional in one. That confinement, presumably, is for those who have chosen that path to be ethical in their conduct. The Yorubas make reference to the pot that must consume delicious stew, that must not run away from the heat of the burner. To become an accomplished professional, therefore, every practitioner must be subject to the heat of Ethics.

This presentation will not be about the Code of Ethics. A code of ethics is an acceptance of the necessity for ethics, that there should be an agreed guide for the purpose of achieving certain goals. People, as well as, organizations who believe in it, therefore, set for themselves a code of ethics, which would be briefly mentioned in the course of the presentation.

Keywords: Ethics, Profession, Professional, Professionalism, Professional Practice and Professional Services.




Structure of the Discussion

Definition of Terms

Quotes on Ethics

The Root of Ethics

Code of Ethics

Ethics and Professionalism

Challenges to Ethics on the field






Ethics: a system of moral principles; the rules of conduct recognized in respect to a particular class of human actions or a particular group, culture, etc. for instance, professional ethics.

Moral: of, relating to, or concerned with the principles or rules of right conduct or the distinction between right and wrong; founded on the fundamental principles of right conduct rather than on legalities, enactment, or custom.

Profession: A profession is a vocation founded upon specialized educational training, the purpose of which is to supply disinterested objective counsel and service to others, for a direct and definite compensation, wholly apart from expectation of other business gain. It is inherent that a code of ethics governs the activities of each profession. Such code requires behavior and practice beyond the personal moral obligation of an individual. They define and demand high standards of behavior in respect to the services provided to the public and in dealing with professional colleagues. Further, these codes are enforced by the profession and are acknowledge by the community (Professions, Australia, 1997). It may also be said to be a combination of knowledge, skills, trustworthiness and altruism found in those who commit themselves to a life of service to others.

Professional: A professional has specialized knowledge which gives him power over his/her clients. Balancing the use of this power for individual and public good, while meeting their own needs, obliges professionals to behave ethically. A true professional not only possesses the practical skills and knowledge of his or her trade but is also disciplined in moral excellence. It is also expected that the professional will hold in trust the best interest of society. There are personal and public expectations of the professional based on the notion that a professional is motivated by something other than raw gain. This is even an expectation of business professionals, whose explicit reason is to make a profit.


Professionals express their altruism through serving in networks of responsibility within their profession, often on a volunteer basis. A certain degree of altruism is expected in the true professional, a certain amount of selfless service. The need for altruism and ethics to direct professional skills is so pressing because of the differential in knowledge that exists between the professional practitioner and the client.

Professionalism: Professionalism is not only a skills set in a given occupation; it is an ineffable something that the person exudes in manner, dress, speech, and standards of practice that is palpably powerful: standards like honesty, due diligence, perseverance, willingness to listen and learn, creative thinking within a framework of training, and other qualities most people would be hard put to describe but which they expect in the professionals with whom they engage.  Another word for these standards is “virtues”, and the hard-to-describe something exuded is “trustworthiness”, which is the sum total of these virtues.


Professionalism is about the delivery of specialized knowledge in a way that balances the attendant power. That is why trust is the essence of professionalism and its most necessary component around which all the other hallmarks of professionalism revolve. The power that asymmetric knowledge (the superior knowledge) gives one person over another must oblige the practitioner to act in the client’s best interest and must be well communicated, the contrary of which will be termed unprofessional. Professionalism is our business, and this needs to be efficiently communicated in order to achieve the desired result.

Professional Practice: The term ‘professional practice’ refers to the conduct and work of someone from a particular profession.


Professional Services: occupations in the tertiary sector of the economy requiring special training in the arts or services. Some professional services required holding professional licenses such as urban planners, architects, doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.

Consulting: professional services provided by sole proprietors, partnerships or corporations giving expert advice to people. A person providing the service can often be described as a consultant. In law, barristers normally organize themselves into chambers. In Urban Planning? Can we discuss this?



“In law a man is guilty when he violates the right of others. In ethics he is guilty if he only thinks of doing it.” – Immanuel Kent

“Without ethics, man has no future. This is to say, mankind without them (ethics) cannot be itself. Ethics determine choices and actions and suggest difficult priorities” – John Berger

“History shows that where ethics and economics come in conflict, victory is always with economics. Vested interests have never been known to have willingly divested themselves unless there was sufficient force to compel them.” – B.R. Ambedkar

“Ethics is knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do.” – Potter Stewart.

“From these teachers and my experiences I’ve learned that I cannot be one person eight hours a day and another person the rest of the time. I am a total person and every waking moment I want to be honest with and to myself and be proud of what I am doing in any environment: academic, work, or personal.” – Fourth-year student, Core Commitments Leadership Consortium campus.



Root and Nature

Ethics is rooted in the Greek word “ethikos” which derives from another Greek word “ethos” (Steven Mintz, 2010). Ethos means custom or character. I’d like to see it as moral conduct. Philosophy classifies ethical behaviour as one that is “good”. Ethics or moral philosophy is about developing, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong behaviour. According to Mintz, these concepts do not change as one’s desire and motivations to change. They are not relative to the situation. They are immutable. This is what makes ethics difficult, it doesn’t lend itself to flexibility of morally unstable people. Good will always be good and bad will always be bad!

Ethics, also recognized as moral philosophy, generally addresses fundamental questions like;

  • How would I live my life?
  • What sort of person should I aim to be?
  • What values should I adopt?
  • What should be my guiding principles and standards?

In a broad sense ethics is about right and wrong, and that means it is an issue of conscience, which may be referred to as a moral compass.

Ethics is influenced by the following pillars;

  • religious teachings
  • philosophical thoughts
  • societal beliefs

It is more about what ought to be than what is. It deals with what people should do or the way they should act. So, ethics imposes a moral obligation on the average person which makes a presumption on what he should do examining it from the angle of right or wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, befitting of unbefitting, deserving or undeserving. Ethics has got a lot to do with striving to make the right decision in every circumstance, based on well-established norms of behaviour, not by some perceived enlightened self-interest.

Between Values and Ethics

Mintz argues that values are basic and fundamental beliefs that guides or motivate attitudes or actions.  Values, he says are concerned with how a person will behave in certain situations whereas ethics is concerned with how a moral person should behave. For example, a person who values prestige, power and wealth is likely to act out of self-interest, whereas a person who values honesty, integrity and truth will typically act in the best interest of others. Looking at this from the spectrum of service provision, to which we are called as consultants in urban planning field, ethics is superior to mere values because the end one seeks determine the values one would pursue. If, as service requires, we are to seek the good of others, then ethics compels us to value honesty, integrity and truth.

Ethics and Law

I have always felt that ethics is stronger than law because I believe that ethics is about morality while law is about legality. When I see someone who insists on legality, letters of the law against morality, I can see a man who is unethical. Ethics is discipline, law does not connote discipline. Often, we have been cling to the law as a straw when issues that impinge on their sense of moral justice are brought to light. In law, you begin to look for loopholes and interpretations, and begin to argue like the sociologist, saying one thing on one hand and another thing on the other hand. According to Mintz, being ethical is not the same as following the law. While ethical people always try to be law abiding, there may be instances where your sense of ethics tells you it is best not to follow the law. For example, you may need to choose between avoiding committing trespass and helping salvage a building that is likely to be consumed by an inferno. According to Benjamin Disraeli (1804- 1881), “when men are pure, laws are useless; when men are corrupt, law are broken.” When man walks the ethical path, he will honour and respect the rules and would be willing to go beyond laws, above letters of the law, whenever the occasion demands.

We can ask ourselves if it is ethical to manipulate to hold offices, if truly it is about service. For example, the law probably does not say anything about voting by proxy. Would it be right to come vote on someone’s behalf just to increase votes, when the one who should vote is not around?




Those in professional practice ought to be committed to doing what is right and honorable. When people come together to establish an organization, they set high standards for themselves and put in all diligence to ensure that those standards are met in the various aspects of life, either work, home, or service to the humanity that they are connected with. The standards that people set for themselves are often expressed in codes and regulations guiding their activities.

This Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct describes the expectations that they have of themselves and others with whom they relate. The Code articulates the ideals to which members aspire as well as the behaviors that are mandatory in their professional and volunteer roles.



The purpose Code of Ethics is to instill confidence in the profession and to help individual members become better practitioners. This is achieved by establishing a profession-wide understanding of appropriate behavior. It is believed that the credibility and reputation of the profession is shaped by the collective conduct of individual practitioners.

It is believed that professions can advance, both individually and collectively, by embracing the Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct. It is also believed that codes of ethics assist professionals in making wise decisions, particularly when faced with difficult situations where they may be asked to compromise their integrity or values.



Professional bodies may set standards of ethics, performance, competence, insurance, training and so on, that must be met to remain within the profession. These are typically set out in a code of conduct.

Professions will have specific practices and standards that they value, but in the construction industry, there are some general principles common to most professionals. Professionals in the industry will be expected to reasonably pursue the following:


Act with integrity.

Adopt an ethical approach in the discharge of their services.

Provide a high standard of service.

Only undertake work for which there is appropriate competence.

Have appropriate insurance.

Ensure that terms of appointment are clear.

Act in a way that promotes trust in the profession.

Do not bring the profession into disrepute.

Do not discriminate against parties on any grounds.

Demonstrate a commitment to continuing professional development.

Offer a dispute resolution service.



Ethics and professionalism are two different words but it is often times inseparable. A possession of one without the other is like having a content without a container or a container without a content. Being a professional requires more than wearing a nice suit. It requires ethical behavior that drives interactions with other employees, customers and leadership. It also guides how someone performs his/her job. “Professionalism” is the conduct, aims or qualities that characterize or mark a profession or professional person (Darrel Brown, 2016). According to Kimberlee Leonard and Darrel Brown, there are several ways a person can exemplify professionalism on the job but here are a few:

  • Strive for excellence

This is the first rule to achieving greatness in whatever endeavour a professional undertakes; this is the quality that makes the professional and his work stand out.

  • Timelines and Punctuality

Being on time is one of the most fundamental qualities of professionalism. A professional person comes to work before his shift, settles in and is ready to work for the duration. He is punctual to appointments with clients and meetings with staff and management. His work is completed on time and he meets all deadlines given to him without excuses.

  • Taking Responsibility and Being Accountable

A professional is accountable for his or her actions. Someone with a high degree of professionalism takes responsibility for his assignments, his actions and any problems that may arise from his work. If a problem happens where a client didn’t get the needed result on time because a team member slipped on his schedule, the professional will take responsibility and take action to resolve the issue. There is no passing the buck with a professional.

  • Being Structured and Well-Organized

A professional is well-organized. This helps him do his job efficiently and effectively. His desk is in order with only the necessary files neatly positioned for him to work on. His desk has files for forms, brochures and the supplies he needs to do his job properly. This prevents him from needing to run around to look for staples while in the middle of a presentation.

  • Objectivity

Objectivity requires intellectual honesty and impartiality. Regardless of the particular service rendered or the capacity in which a professional functions, he protects the integrity of his work, maintains objectivity and avoids subordination of his judgment.

  • Confidentiality

Confidentiality means ensuring that information is accessible only to those authorized to have access. A relationship of trust and confidence with the client can only be built upon the understanding that the client’s information will remain confidential.

  • Having Professional Appearance and Good Hygiene

The professional who appears at meetings or comes to work with his clothes pressed, shirt tucked in and matching socks has taken the time to ensure his appearance meets the standards for his job. His clothes are clean, his hair is combed and he has made sure to brush his teeth and use deodorant. He’ll use mints after lunch or brush his teeth again. He wants to make sure his first impression in any situation is a positive one. People have more trust in someone who has taken the time to ensure a professional appearance.

  • Being Consistent and Professional

When someone has a strong work ethic, they are diligent in making sure work gets done and done properly. This should include a culture of consistency and efficiency. Business leaders want this level of professionalism in all employees because errors and delays cost money and create other problems.

  • Having Humility and Kindness

A professional is confident but doesn’t walk around the office arrogantly touting his accomplishments. He is humble and kind, and will offer to help others. He is a team player who understands his contribution is one part of a bigger equation. As such, he works with others to make sure that everyone is achieving everything they can.

  • Trustworthiness, Honesty, Openness and Transparency

In today’s society, trust is an issue, and any professional who exhibits trustworthiness is on a fast track to professionalism. Honesty is a facet of moral character that connotes positive and virtuous attributes such as truthfulness, straightforwardness of conduct, loyalty, fairness, sincerity, openness in communication, and generally operating in a way for others to see what actions are being performed.

  • Competence and Continuous Improvement

Competence is the ability of an individual to do a job properly; it is a combination of knowledge, skills and behavior used to improve performance. The penchant for improvement must be constant

  • Modeling Good Examples

Applying the foregoing rules helps to improve professionalism within an organization, but it is not complete until the professional imparts knowledge on those around and below him. A professional is therefore expected to be a role model.


Ethical behavior on the other hand, guides whether someone will perform minor infractions if he/she feels no one is watching. Ethical behavior is good for business and involves demonstrating respect for key moral principles that include honesty, fairness, equality, dignity, diversity and individual rights (Darrel Brown, 2016). Demonstrating ethical behavior is important for many reasons. People and clients feel safe when working with a professional if they know he is following morally sound guidelines. It builds the reputation of the professional and his allied business. In civilized environments, many professionals won’t remain in business if the public sense  their inability to operate ethically. Professional Urban Planning Consultants must therefore follow high ethical standards, if they want to remain relevant and excel in the profession.



It happens from time to time, most especially in our profession, when you are confronted with situations that challenge your willingness to adhere to ethical and professional standards. This can be as a result of the following reasons:

  • Going along with the crowd.
  • Work versus family and societal pressure.
  • Greater and more aggressive unvoiced competition among planning firms.
  • The temptations of executive salaries.
  • When leaders mislead.
  • Pursuit of selfish ambition.

This and many more are the reasons why many professionals including urban planners will want to forgo ethics and professionalism and then ultimately fail at the end.



Developing a Moral Compass: The Five Dimensions of Personal and Social Responsibility

The Association of American Colleges and Universities identified five key dimensions of personal and social responsibility that form the crux of the Core Commitments initiative, which can serve as the basis for developing a moral compass. These are:

  1. Striving for excellence: developing a strong work ethic and consciously doing one’s very best in all aspects of practice.
  2. Cultivating personal and professional integrity: recognizing and acting on a sense of honor, ranging from honesty in relationships to principled engagement with a formal professional honor code.
  3. Contributing to a larger community: recognizing and acting on one’s responsibility to the professional community and the wider society, locally, nationally, and globally.
  4. Taking seriously the perspectives of others: recognizing and acting on the obligation to inform one’s own judgment; engaging diverse and competing perspectives as a resource for professional services, citizenship, and work.
  5. Developing competence in ethical and moral reasoning and action: developing ethical and moral reasoning in ways that incorporate the other four responsibilities; using such reasoning in practice and in life.

While these five dimensions do not encompass all aspects of ethical responsibility to self and others, they offer a compelling claim as an initial focus for a widespread reengagement with issues of personal and social responsibility.

(Adapted from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, AAC&U, document: Developing a Moral Compass, 2010)



Good ethics and professionalism are fundamental requirements of any profession. They are integral to the success of businesses as well. Our actions affect not only ourselves, but also those around us. Many of our professional decisions involve ethics. If we tell a lie, we can lose someone’s trust and undermine our own integrity. If we render incompetent service on a job, we can jeopardize the opportunity of having another great one. Questions of morality and ethics can be found at all levels of society. Ethics and Professionalism are protective and give support in challenging times. Therefore, maintaining ethical standards is a must for the prosperity of our profession as well as the development of one’s personality. Being ethical will enhance our image and enable us to refrain from activities that may bring our profession into disrepute. Our conscience must remain alert and active. It dies if we allow it to, that’s the thing about the conscience. That is why it needs to be kept alive so that it can rightly guide us at all times. Albert Schweitzer says, “Ethics is the activity of man directed to secure the inner perfection of his own personality.”

Finally, if you want to succeed in any profession and want to leave an indelible mark, as well as, a legacy for younger generations. In conclusion, there are 5C’sCharacter, Competence, Capability, Capacity and Courage – that are vital to our moral uprightness, two of which play a major role in making a difference, Character and Courage.

Character: Billy Graham (1918-2018) said, “When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.” According to John Wooden (1910-2010), “ability may get you to the top, but character is what keeps you there.” That is what ethics does for us as professionals.

Courage: It is strength in the face of adversity and uncertainty. Courage is about doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you’re scared. “Have the courage to act instead of react.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes (1809-1894).

You may be a brilliant professional or a highly skilled Urban Planner, but if you’re unprofessional and unethical in your dealings, your career is likely to fall short (Alan Norton, 2010).



  1. Alan Norton (2010). 10 things that define a true professional. Retrieved May 2, 2019, from
  2. Association of American Colleges & Universities (2010). Developing a Moral Compass, 1818 R Street, NW, Washington, DC 20009.
  3. Darrel Brown (2016). Ethics and professionalism in the workplace. Retrieved May 2, 2019, from
  4. Kimberlee Leonard (2019). Meaning of Professionalism and Work Ethic. Retrieved May 2, 2019, from
  5. Postema, Gerald J. (1980). “Moral responsibility in professional ethics” (PDF). NYUL Rev. 55. Retrieved March 26, 2016.
  6. Royal Institute of British Architects – Code of professional conduct Archived 2013-06-18 at the Wayback Machine.
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