When Good People Are Unethical – Impartiality

Imagine this, instead of hiring a professional interpreter who is familiar and cognizant of the code of ethics, an untrained bilingual person is hired to simply cover the assignment.   Without proper knowledge and training, the bilingual person serving as an “interpreter” will most likely unconsciously commit serious ethical violations while at the same time thinking he is doing a good deed.

Example 5

Mr. Martinez asked his friend who works as an interpreter to accompany him to his doctor visit. They enjoy a close friendship. Mr. Martinez feels comfortable with his friend and trusts that he will help him out.

Because of this close friendship, the interpreter is familiar with Mr. Martinez who has explained in detail what has been going on in his case. He also has expressed worry that the doctor is a puppet for the insurance company and isn’t doing right by him.  All Mr. Martinez wants is to get better so he can return to work and provide for his family.

At the appointment, the doctor proceeds to give Mr. Martinez bad news. “I am sorry, but I have done everything reasonably possible. There is nothing more I can do. Therefore, I will send you for a functional capacity exam and calculate your permanent impairment rating.”

At that moment, the distraught patient cries “but my doctor! You have to help me!” he begs. Being close friends with the patient and having experienced working in many medical settings, the interpreter is appalled. He believes that the doctor is screwing his friend over so he begins to speak on behalf of Mr. Martinez. He even tells his friend that he should seek another opinion from a better doctor.

Believe it or not, this scenario is very common and happens often when the following ethical guidelines are ignored.


The objective in the NCIHC National Standards of Practice for Interpreters in Health Care is to eliminate the effect of interpreter bias or preference. For this reason, interpreters strive to maintain impartiality and refrain from counseling, advising, or projecting personal biases or beliefs. Impartiality guidelines are as follows.


  • The interpreter does not allow personal judgments or cultural values to influence objectivity. For example, an interpreter does not reveal personal feelings through:
    • words,
    • tone of voice,
    • or body language.
  • The interpreter discloses potential conflicts of interest, withdrawing from assignments if necessary. For example, an interpreter avoids interpreting for:
    • Family members,
    • or close friends.


In this example, the interpreter treads in very dangerous waters. He could be held legally liable since he isn’t qualified to give medical advice. In addition, he isn’t qualified to offer legal advice. Furthermore, his advice could cause greater harm to the patient and foment distrust among the patient, the doctor, and insurance company.

Guideline exist for good reason.  Impartiality is essential to maintain trust.  Untrained bilingual friends and especially family are typically unqualified. Even if they are highly trained and skillful healthcare interpreters, impartiality is difficult maintain when they do it for a dear friend or loved one. Deep emotions can cloud balanced judgement. A person might mean well and wish to help, but if they fail to maintain impartiality, the results can be devastating.

Future posts will consider other circumstances where good people can be unethical without even knowing it.

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