Maria Thacker

It is appropriate this year, exactly thirty years after the SIETAR International Task Force on Professional Ethics was established in 1982, that I write the Preface for the Eye on Ethics series, the latest attempt by the organization to publicly declare working standards for our members in their intercultural work.

The 1982 task force included Dr. Susan Howards of Helenic College, Toby Franks of the American Language Academy, Peggy Pusch of the Intercultural Press and George Renwick of Renwick Associates. Timely concerns were raised across various intercultural work domains of responsibility and accountability particularly in training, research and publishing.[1] In 1983 this group published the results of a SIETAR International membership survey and subsequently a Code of Ethics was established.[2] In 1988 the Standing Committee on Ethics was formed and charged to revise the Code with the aim of more internationalization and diversification. By 1990 Nessa Loewenthal led a movement to develop a values framework and rid the Code of American-centric biases. Also national and regional affiliates were encouraged to develop their own set of guidelines under the broad SIETAR International umbrella. [3]

Once SIETAR International was dissolved and SIETAR-USA was formed in 2001, Andy Renyolds, Sandra Fowler, Robert Hayles and Rebecca Peterson successively assumed the Board leadership to develop SIETAR-USA published ethical standards. Over the last decade the focus has changed from an enforceable code needing adjudication to a set of voluntary aspirational principles.

The ebb and flow of the last thirty years has seen amazing commitment and outstanding scholarship. Some of our intercultural theorists such as Dean Barnlund, R. Michael Paige, Judith Martin, Mitchell Hammer, to name a few, have written elegantly about ethics.[4] Contemporary intercultural communication textbooks prominently mention how to achieve an ethical perspective in intercultural work. In the Eye on Ethics series, sixteen essayists, all who care deeply about SIETAR-USA and ethical standards, have offered their voices to the most recent organizational conversation. Eye on Ethics is a serious attempt to broaden the base of perspectives and increase the investment members will have in standards if indeed they are adopted.

So one may wonder, “Why has it taken so long?” for SIETAR-USA to adopt standards? I suggest that there may be a buried fear that personal freedom could be compromised or authoritarian power abused. Another theory is that Ethics has a small but dedicated constituency that eventually burns only to be replaced by new energy.

The momentum though has always been forward with a clear vision of the goal. Developing organizational support for standards is not easy. On the one hand there is the depth of ethical ambiguity and on the other we are an organization that values cultural differences above all else. But as Robert Hayles, a former Ethics Chair who has the perspective of a long time SIETAR Member poses in his essay, the time has come for action.

There is also urgency because of events outside of the organization. Lately as a culture US Americans are showing amazing exuberance in consideration of how we should treat one another, show respect and determine what is fair.[5] These are deeply embedded issues awash in our society and SIETAR –USA is not immune. Although often prodded by regulations, corporate America is scurrying to get their houses in order both here and abroad. Disapproval and skepticism about traditional democratic politics is at an all time high yet grass roots local communities founded on shared values are sprouting up to impact global dangers. A new app, For The Good tells us instantly whether the products we buy or the services we use are ethically imbued. Under girding all of this is the inherent sense that if it isn’t grounded in fairness and respect, it won’t last.

Why would SIETAR-USA be any different? Repeatedly over the last thirty years, but most notably in the ethics conversation of the last twelve months, members have called for institutionally supported ethical standards that would assist the organization, its members and their clients. This prism of SIETAR-USA identity would be there to guide the behaviors and expectations of all concerned. Yet we all know that the responsibility to aspire to the highest standards of personal conduct ultimately rests with the individual interculturalist.

A Chinese proverb says, “You can’t lift a pebble with one finger”. Our ethics boulder that has slowly made its way up the incline over many years is nearly to the summit. To go the last few yards it needs some heavy lifting from SIETAR-USA members. At there is an invitation to nominate yourself or a fellow member to the Ethics Working Group. This group will recommend specific aspirational principles to guide our work as professional interculturalists.

In 2013 the membership will vote and the outcome announced at the annual conference. By then, if we do indeed find ourselves standing on the summit, we will see the next ridge in the distance. As Sandra Fowler points out in her Introduction, once standards are formulated, the change process will begin with calls for improvements.

I offer much gratitude to the many essayists of this year’s Eye on Ethics series. I look with anticipation to the next stage, SIETAR-USA members crafting and proposing standards. Ethics matters. Join the process and make a difference.

Maria Thacker

Ethics Portfolio
SIETAR-USA Board of Directors

[1] Frank, T, Howards, S., Pusch, P., Renwick, G. (1982) The Ethical Imperative, International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Vol.6, 225-226.

[2] SIETAR International, Communique, Winter 1983 & April 1985.

[3] SIETAR International, Annual Membership Directory, Code of Ethics 1990, 1994, 1998. Final & Draft Copy the same.

[4] Barnlund, D (1995), The Cross-Cultural Arena: An Ethical Void In Nobleza Asuncion-Lande(Ed) Ethical Perspectives and Critical Issues in Intercultural Communication.

Paige, R.M., Martin, J. (1996), Ethics in Intercultural Training. In Dan Landis and Rabi Bhagat (Eds.), Handbook of Intercultural Training, 2nd Edition.

Hammer, M., (1992, May) The Research Connection: Ethics and the Impotent Interculturalist, Communique.

[5] (2012, April). The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 14.

Maria Martin Thacker as an independent consultant has assisted corporate, not-for –profit, and education clients to reach their inclusion and diversity goals. She had done this while living extensively in Japan, and Bermuda. She is currently part of the Liberal Arts Faculty of the Ringling College of Art and Design, Sarasota, FL where she teaches anthropology and intercultural communications. She is a previous member of SIETAR International and SIETAR JAPAN and currently holds the Ethics Portfolio on the SIETAR-USA Board.

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