Honor and Integrity

ARTICLE | Mar 21, 2016

What It Means for This Profession

Why focus on honor and integrity? Here are three reasons:


1. Trust relationships are built with the essential character traits of honor and integrity. Building trust with the community a manager serves is more important now than ever.

The negative stories about the failure of some local governments, both real and perceived, to deliver on their obligation to provide effective and equitable services for all, highlights the importance of actions based on values.

2. Integrity is the foundational trait for leadership. For brevity’s sake, integrity can be defined as simply oneness of self. A leader with integrity has clear values that drive consistent behavior with singularity of purpose.

Watching a leader in action who actually has integrity doesn’t leave observers wondering whether the behavior is true to the person. Or worse, whether or not they can trust this individual.

3. Together, honor and integrity form the substance of Tenet 3 of the ICMA Code of Ethics. Since more than 60 percent of ethics complaints reviewed by ICMA involve a breach of Tenet 3, this is the topic for discussion in the ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct’s ongoing review of the Code.

A Look Back on Tenet 3

Tenet 3 was first added to the ICMA Code of Ethics in 1938 as: “The city manager is governed by the highest ideals of honor and integrity in all his public and personal relationships in order that he may merit the respect and inspire the confidence of the administrative organization which he directs and of the public which he serves.”

It was edited over time until it reached its current presentation in 1976: “Be dedicated to the highest ideals of honor and integrity in all public and personal relationships in order that the member may merit the respect and confidence of the elected officials, of other officials and employees, and of the public.”

This version is broader in scope and applicability. It reflects the fact that leadership happens at all levels of the organization.

It’s not just about the city or county manager’s conduct anymore. The integrity of everyone working in the organization matters. As does the integrity of those ICMA members who do not work for a local government.

Yes, this tenet applies to ICMA members working in other governmental, private, or nongovernmental sectors; students; and to retired and Life members.

The eight guidelines under Tenet 3, most of which were drafted in 1972, attempt to define what honor and integrity look like for a management professional. Issues addressed include maintaining public confidence, avoiding the appearance of undue influence, appointment commitment, credentials, treating colleagues with respect when seeking a position, and the obligation to report potential ethics violations while adhering to the confidentiality requirements of the process.

The issues are complex, but not necessarily equal in importance.

Moving Forward: The Relevancy of Tenet 3

The ICMA Code of Ethics establishes the principles, values, and guidance to ensure that members will serve and lead with integrity. To serve its purpose, it must be relevant.

Please take a moment to read Tenet 3 and the guidelines. A complete version is available at the ICMA website. As you do, consider these questions:


1. Is the tenet relevant to the profession?

2. Are there parts of the tenet that need refinement or clarity?

3. If leadership matters, does this version define the values that leaders should have? Beyond referencing honor, integrity, and respect, are there other values that should be added?

4. Is it possible to describe the actual behaviors that result in building public confidence in the work of staff at all levels of the organization?

5. Is the reference to personal conduct appropriate? Where do we draw the line between our personal and professional lives? Do we, for example, need to add a guideline on navigating personal relationships in the workplace?

6. Private sector CEOs have the luxury of negotiating and sealing the best deal in a competitive but confidential process. In the local government sector where the process requires transparency, public disclosure, and official approval of the job offer and compensation, it gets complicated.

While members can compete for several positions at the same time or consider several offers, once a bona fide offer of a position has been accepted, the commitment must be honored. Oral acceptance of an employment offer is considered binding unless the employer makes fundamental changes in terms of employment.

Is it clear what constitutes a bona fide offer? Is a handshake with the mayor or corporate counsel sufficient? Does this guideline even make sense now?

7. Fingertip access to social media outlets where you can share any number of thoughts, often before the personal filter kicks in, can result in uncivil, snarky comments about colleagues, elected officials, and the community.

Or on the positive side, a valid perspective otherwise not shared. This may or may not reflect well on the sender or the profession. Do we need to develop guidance on the proper use of social media?

8. What are we missing?


The commitment to character and serving with integrity is critical to your success as a local government manager. As the review of this important tenet unfolds over the next six months, we look forward to hearing from you on these eight questions.

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