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Code of Ethics vs. Morality: It Can Be Confusing

NAR’s Code of Ethics outlines acceptable Realtor behavior, and members agree to disciplinary action if they break the Code. But it’s not the same thing as moral behavior, and “That wasn’t very nice” isn’t necessarily a Code of Ethics violation.

ORLANDO, Fla. – Dear Anne: As an avid reader of your articles, it never ceases to amaze me that when a member’s conduct is obviously unethical, you say it’s not. I want to know how can you can condone misconduct?

I’ve been in the real estate business for 20 years, and the behavior I’m encountering these days is ghastly and running rampant, and all you can say is that it’s still ethical? I would love to get inside your head and try to figure you out. Can you explain why you take the stance you do sometimes? – Signed Bewildered

Dear Bewildered: Obviously, you’re not a fan. First, let me say I do not condone misconduct of any kind, because one agent acting badly casts a shadow on everyone.

I also agree that my advice doesn’t always seem fair – but the Code of Ethics isn’t about being fair, nor is it about being right or wrong. We tend to let our moral code – those internal, self-governing principles about what’s right and wrong – take hold, and our first reaction is to file an ethics complaint.

But there is a difference between one’s moral code and a code of ethics (or conduct) established by an industry or workplace. While the two words tend to be used interchangeably, morality broadly refers to individuals while ethics refers to groups.

In exchange for membership, Realtors agree to abide by the National Association of Realtors®’ Code of Ethics – a code of conduct or obligations set forth by a professional trade association. As part of this agreement, members voluntarily subject themselves to the disciplinary authority of their local member board if they fail to adhere to the obligations and tenets prescribed in the Code.

Occasionally, the stars align when morals and the Code of Ethics are in sync with one another. For example, Article 1 says Realtors must be honest. No doubt honesty is also a top contender in most people’s moral codes. But sometimes, morals and the Code wind up miles apart – and I suspect that’s why I frustrate you with my answers to ethics questions.

It behooves anyone who files an ethics complaint to first ask if their allegations are based on personal principles of right or wrong, or if an obligation under the Code of Ethics applies.

To illustrate this point, let’s say you host an open house. Realtor Sally is there doing a preview before bringing her buyer to see the property. While there, she strikes up a conversation with a prospect touring your open house and tells him about her listing that she believes would be a better fit for this family. She offers to show them her listing and the buyers stop mid-tour to go see Sally’s listing.

Morally, you’re thinking this is wrong on all levels. Yes, it’s a rotten thing to do – but before you jump to conclusions, I suggest you take some time to cool down then ask yourself, “Is there an article of the Code that could apply in this circumstance?” If the answer is “no,” it’s time to move on – there is no violation of the Code here.

It would great if everyone could practice in a utopia where all real estate professionals subscribe to The Golden Rule. But alas, we’re not there yet.

Have an ethics or rules question? Email us at legalnews@floridarealtors.org with “Dear Anne” in the subject line.

Anne Cockayne is Director of Local Association Services for Florida Realtors

© 2019 Florida Realtors®