Ethical secrets from America’s top-ranked profession

By Steven McCarty

The National Ethics Association


“After two days in the hospital,” comic W.C. Fields once quipped, “I took a turn for the nurse.” Given the number of sanctioned advisors I read about these days, perhaps financial services professionals, both men and women, should also take a “turn for the nurse." Here’s why.

For 12 straight years, America’s nurses have placed first in Gallup’s annual Honesty and Ethics Survey. Its most recent study (2011) revealed that 85 percent of Americans said nurses have “very high” or “high” honesty and ethical standards, and only 3 percent rated them as being low or very low. Nurses rated substantially higher than other well-respected professionals, such as military officers, pharmacists, grade school teachers and medical doctors.

The reputation of America’s nurses put the lowest-ranking professions to shame. For instance, only 8 percent of Americans surveyed rated automobile salespeople as having “very high” or “high” ethical standards. Members of Congress were rated only marginally higher at 10 percent, and advertising professionals came in at 11 percent.

Clearly, nurses are doing something right. Now, I’m not suggesting all nurses are perfect. Anyone who has spent time in a hospital, either as a patient or a visitor, has seen bad ones. What’s more, the health care industry is under a lot of cost pressure, and nurses simply aren’t able to spend the same amount of time with their patients they used to. Yet, nurses continue to pull down enviable ethical ratings, even though they have more work to do and fewer resources.

Furthermore, the compliance demands on nurses to document accidents and other bad outcomes is incredible. They’re much more intense than the compliance obligations of a typical financial advisor. So, why do nurses score much higher on ethics surveys than your typical salesperson or business professional? And what can you, as a financial advisor, learn from them?

I believe the answer boils down to the quality of the American Nursing Association’s Code of Ethics. Three elements, in particular, assure that nurse behavior is ethically outstanding:
  • Nurses must view patients as their primary commitment. All other agendas are secondary.
  • Nurses must treat patients with compassion and respect, regardless of outside social or economic factors.
  • Nurses must advocate for the health, safety and rights of their patients.
You, too, can have high ethical ratings by adopting these standards in your own business. Here’s how:
  • Always strive to avoid conflicts of interest. The key is to always sit on the same side of the table as your clients. If you’re not, stand up and switch chairs now!
  • Make sure that everything you do for — and say to — a client comes from a place of respect. All clients, regardless of wealth or status, deserve to be treated with dignity.
  • View yourself as your clients’ financial advocate. Be protective of their assets. And fight for them when other advisors or institutions attempt to harm them. If you don’t nurse their financial well being, who will?