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Ethics Can Be Taught, But That’s Not All There Is To It

The current issue of California Real Estate, official magazine of the California Association of REALTORS®(CAR), contains a transcript of an interesting panel discussion titled, “Best Practices, Pet Peeves, and Challenges.” “Moderated by C.A.R. CEO Joel Singer, the panelists exchanged ideas about the market and shared their best practices as well as the pet peeves and current challenges.”

One of the panelists, a thirteen-year veteran of the business, made this comment: “I think that ethics is a really important thing that’s missing overall throughout the industry. Ethics training was the very first thing [I learned when I started]. Now, I feel that people don’t get it.” That elicited the following response from Joel Singer: “Ethics is something difficult to teach. Either you are ethical or you’re not. The one thing that we always say to the legislature, who wants to teach you ethics every day, is that the problem is if you’re unethical, it doesn’t make any difference.”

This response, I believe, represents a widely-held, if not often articulated, point of view. Sometimes it is summed up in the slogan, “Ethics can’t be taught, it must be caught.” But this viewpoint conflates two distinct items: (1) Ethics, as a set of rules and principles about behavior; and (2) Being Ethical, as a disposition to act according to those rules and principles. Having made that distinction, one might then express the viewpoint as saying, “Ethics can be taught, but you can’t teach someone to be ethical.”

We can teach our teenagers the rules of grammar, but we may not be able to get them to speak grammatically. If we want people to behave a certain way (including acting ethically), we need to motivate them to do so.

Can ethics — the rules and principles of ethics — be taught? Of course they can. It has been happening for thousands of years in a myriad of cultures. (To be sure, the ethics of some cultures may differ from others, but that is a different and essentially unrelated issue.)

Can people be motivated to conform to the ethical rules they have been taught? Again, of course. Some more so than others, though, and not always with results that we like. (MS-13 members, for example, may conform highly with the behavioral rules they have been taught.)

If there is an unacceptably high incidence of ethical misbehavior in the real estate industry, perhaps industry leaders would do well to honestly and thoughtfully address the facts that contribute to that. One thing is for sure: if we keep doing what we have been doing, we should not expect to see different results.

Any program or plan to increase ethical behavior and to lessen unethical behavior among the ranks of REALTORS® would have to have at least two components: one would be the effective teaching of those rules and principles embodied in the Realtor® Code of Ethics; the other would be supplying motivation to act in accordance with those rules and principles.

The current requirement for familiarizing agents and brokers with the Realtor® Code of Ethics is so minimal — take a 2 1/2 hour course once every two years — it suggests that even the organization doesn’t take it very seriously.

The National Association of REALTORS® is rightfully proud of its Code of Ethics, a document first formulated in 1913, and amended at more than 30 different national conventions since then. With 17 articles, supplemented by over 88 Standards of Practice and more than 154 official Case Interpretations, it presents a complex set of documents. At best, a 2½ hour class on it would have to be cursory. Taking such a class once every two year would, I think, not be an effective way of familiarizing REALTORS® with the Code.

As we have noted before, the very need for a real estate code of ethics is rooted in the same fact that has led other businesses and professions to develop their own unique codes of ethics. It is that, as one gets into the details of conducting the practice of real estate (or law, or counseling, etc.) people — even very ethically good people — find themselves in situations and settings that are distinctly new and different. Even if we are already schooled in the application of ethical principles to the situations of everyday life, we are liable to find ourselves unsure how those principles apply in situations involving matters such as agency, exclusive representation, multiple counter offers, and the like.

Much of the Code deals with matters that may be complicated and that don’t have parallels in the everyday world. Even very good, well-intentioned people may be at a loss when confronting them. While it is not a sensible aim to make every Realtor® an “expert” in the Code, it does make sense, and is achievable, to make members more conversant with it than can be accomplished with the present requirement.

Many REALTORS® do need to learn more about the Code. One way to achieve that might be to have the first year or two years of membership require some ethics training in addition to that which they received in their orientation process. Courses could be made available in a variety of formats, from on-line to provision by the agent’s own brokerage. The point, of course, would be to better familiarize them at the beginning of their careers.

But what has been said here only treats learning the principles of an ethical code. What about applying them? What about being ethical? We’ll tackle that topic next.

Written by Bob Hunt, former director of the National Association of Realtors, and author of “Real Estate the Ethical Way” published for Copyright © 2018 Realty Times All Rights Reserved.

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