Editor’s note: This article is part of an occasional series on ethics in the real estate business. The writer will tackle timely issues and take ethics questions from readers at opinion@inman.com.

Consider the following case:

Bill and Shannon are friends as well as mortgage loan underwriters who work at competing companies. Bill shares details of a challenging loan that he recently declined. A few days later, Shannon receives a file on her desk from a loan originator at Bill’s company and recognizes it as the loan Bill recently declined. Unfortunately, there is a significant document missing. Without this document, the borrowers qualify. What sorts of ethical considerations should Shannon consider as she decides how to handle this case? Let’s see if we can develop a rational methodology that Shannon could use to solve her problem.

If we strive toward high ethical standards in the mortgage lending industry but the applicable codes of ethics are vague, ambiguous or incomplete, it can be difficult to know if we are acting with moral justification. We believe that the constant improvement of codes of ethics is the primary source of clarity regarding ethical justification. Nevertheless, when written standards are not so clear, we can still find rational moral guidance by identifying important values that are hidden within current codes.

We can employ several methods to resolve the conflicts that result from unclear standards. We can utilize emotion or intuition. We can abide by religious doctrine. We can also consult authority figures or great books in the hopes of breaking these ties between conflicting moral duties. The problem with these various attempts of resolving ethical dilemmas is that they are unreflective in nature and do not resolve moral conflict in a way that can be defended with reason. People can have different emotions, religious beliefs or favorite authority figures, and this does not allow us a rational process for deciding between conflicting claims. This slows down the process of developing formally objective standards of practice.

Ethical codes and licensing standards of practice are written for the purpose of guiding and standardizing moral behavior. While this process creates the possibility of standardized reflection about ethical problems, it does not go far enough if the language of the codes is too vague, too short or too detailed to be of sufficient practical usefulness. This frequently leaves us in a quandary about our moral behavior that can only be solved by identifying the underlying values that the code tries to embody. If we can identify underlying values, we can formulate rules of action that can steer us through difficult dilemmas.

Let’s look at the code of ethics of the National Association of Professional Mortgage Women, reproduced here:

National Association of Professional Mortgage Women Code of Ethics

Members shall recognize the magnitude of the responsibility in accepting this field as a career, and shall engage themselves individually and collectively to further the purposes of the association and bind themselves to the provisions of this Code.

In fulfilling the obligations of our profession we:

  • Shall adhere to the Articles of Incorporation, Bylaws and Operating Procedures, and accept the responsibility of membership in the Association with integrity and dignity.

  • Shall accord just and equitable treatment to all members of the profession in the exercise of their professional rights and responsibilities.

  • Shall not misrepresent and institution or organization with which we are affiliated and shall take adequate precautions to distinguish between personal, institutional and organizational views.

  • Shall be guided in all our activities by the highest ideals for which the Association of Professional Mortgage Women stands, and be aware of our commitment to the profession, the community and ourselves.

While this code of ethics is short and lacks detail, it specifically addresses important values towards which we should aim our professional behavior. We can identify the following values that are manifested by this particular code. They are as follows:

  • Responsibility

  • Justice

  • Respect for Persons

  • Integrity

Let’s take a brief look at these values. Integrity means to be consistent in one’s value commitments. A person who has integrity has formed a coherent, unified and consistent pattern of ethical behavior over time. This implies that similar ethical problems are resolved in similar ethical ways over time. The value of respect for persons implies the valuing of another person’s autonomy, which includes recognition of the supportive duties of honesty, privacy and confidentiality.

For example, in the NAPMW Code of Ethics, the value of respect for persons translates into a principle of action such as maintaining confidentiality. This means that we should respect the privacy of our clients and the confidential nature of our business. In our case, Bill and Shannon should never have had a conversation about Bill’s client that was so specific that Shannon would later recognize it. They both violated principles of confidentiality by having the conversation. As a result, Shannon is now in an ethically compromised position by having information she had no ethical warrant to obtain in the first place. 

In conclusion, by identifying underlying values of applicable codes of ethics we can learn how to better approach and solve ethical conflicts. We can also utilize these values to revise our codes in favor of greater clarification and precision.

Dr. Kevin Boileau is CEO of BPI Consulting Group and co-executive director of Ethical Lending Foundation, and has published several articles and books on ethics, psychology and conflict resolution.

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