Making Ethical Choices

ARTICLE | Nov 18, 2016

Is There An App for That?

Be honest. How did we ever survive travel before the invention of a real-time GPS app that actually coaches you along the way? History tells us that the world as we know it was traversed by brave souls who navigated continents and oceans using the stars, compass, and paper maps. That they landed anywhere close to their destination, without that app, is both brilliant and inconceivable.

Present-day technology is just irreplaceable. My favorite guide—no names because I don't want to appear to offer an endorsement—is a little blue meme that unfailingly finds the fastest way to my destination. Plus it warns me about the hazards of the trip.

Wouldn't it be phenomenal if we had that level of assistance as we navigate the ethical challenges of the workplace? A voice that quietly calls out the small hazards along our chosen path. Redirects us when we miss the right turn. Blares out a warning when we get too close to the brink of ethics fiascos that derail careers and tarnish reputations.

We don't have the app yet. Building on the theme, however, here are some tips coupled with examples of conduct that have landed before the ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct.

Caution, intersection ahead. Arriving at an intersection should produce a heightened sense of awareness. You slow down or stop, if required, and watch the actions of other drivers to cue your next move.

If only this heightened sense of awareness and caution was programmed into our personal GPS when work life intersects with personal life. Consider these situations:

Are you taking some official action, directing an employee, or using your city e-mail/county cellphone to do something that involves your spouse, child, parent, or sibling? If so, you have created an ethical problem.

No matter how well-intentioned, even-handed, or minor the action, once it involves your family, you have, at a minimum, the appearance of favoritism. At worst, you could be charged with leveraging your position for personal benefit. Using public resources to do so just escalates the matter.

Dating a coworker? If you hire, supervise, and can fire this person, either directly or indirectly through the organization's chain of command, you have a problem. These relationships create conflicts of interest, raise legitimate doubts about whose interest is served when the supervisor makes a decision, expose the organization to liability, and strain the professional relationships among staff who have to work together. While not at epidemic levels, ICMA deals with these cases every year.

Aspire to political office? Want to support a candidate? Getting involved politically is one way to advance your career or personal interests. It is incompatible, however, for someone working for a local government to pursue this avenue.

Being impartial and, more importantly, being viewed as such is the critical component of being trusted to work in local government at any level. You can't argue that you are truly impartial when you appear at candidate rallies, post your picture wearing a candidate's button, retweet a candidate's message, or run for sheriff or mayor in the neighboring community where you live. During the past year, several members tried and were unsuccessful with the Committee!

Accidents. Everyone has a fender bender now and then. What did we learn in driver's ed? Don't make it worse by leaving the scene. A recent case before the Committee reinforces this lesson.

As the manager was exiting an organization to take a manager's position in another community, he discovered that his employer had paid the cellphone bill for his spouse and child for several years. Yes, this is the very definition of an accident.

But rather than report the "accident," the manager said nothing. It came to life in a public way when the employer discovered the problem and issued a public demand for repayment.

All the manager had to do when the problem was first discovered was to detail the extent of the problem, put a check for full restitution in the employer's hands, and outline the steps taken to ensure that it would never happen again. Take responsibility and be accountable for your error and the organization's. Leaving the scene was not a good choice.

Hazards. These pop up from any and all directions: Staff members who are so focused on meeting goals that they ignore the rules, an elected official who wants to circumvent process, a natural disaster that exposes weaknesses in the operation, or staff who don't treat the public with equity and respect.

Roadside Assistance: Who do you call when you have an ethical breakdown or are just lost? Please remember that confidential ethics advice is a service ICMA provides to all members.


At the end of the day, it's all about personal integrity and building trust. ICMA Executive Director Bob O'Neill says it best: "Trust, leadership, and courage are keys to local innovation and success. While leaders have an obligation to set the ethical tone of the organization, everyone's behavior matters. Ethical tone and behavior, transparency, engagement, performance, and accountability are essential if you want to build trust with the public and elected officials you serve."

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