Embracing Ethics Now

Unfortunately, it often takes an ethical failure and crisis to raise ethics training to the level of priority it deserves.

ARTICLE | Dec 12, 2018

Message from the Cal-ICMA Ethics Committee

The ICMA Code of Ethics governs the behavior of every member of ICMA.  The Code, adopted in 1924, establishes principles that lay the foundation for our local government management profession and helps set the standard for excellence in government.  ICMA members pledge to uphold these principles in their work as a method to help earn trust of the public, elected officials and staff.

The Cal-ICMA Ethics Committee is committed to raising awareness of this obligation and the importance of respecting political neutrality and the rights of elected officials and residents as encouraged by the Code of Ethics.

Unfortunately, it often takes an ethical failure and crisis to raise ethics training to the level of priority it deserves.

The following is an excerpt from PM Magazine, May 17, 2016.

Embracing Ethics Now

By Kevin Duggan (ICMA’s West Coast Director and the former city manager of Mountain View)

Often when I’m doing ethics presentations on behalf of ICMA, I ask this question: “When are organizations most likely to conduct ethics training?” Invariably the response I get is, “After an ethical crisis.”

Even without any empirical data on the topic, that is the response I expect to receive—and one with which I agree. Unfortunately, it often takes an ethical failure and crisis to raise ethics training to the level of priority it deserves.

Why is this the case? Here are some reasons:

A false sense of security (“We haven’t had a problem”). Many organizations underestimate the likelihood of experiencing an ethical lapse because they have not recently suffered this experience. They assume that previous good fortune can be relied upon to keep them out of harm’s way moving forward.

The competition of other priorities. Our organizations are invariably busy places with many competing priorities. There is seldom enough time or money to do everything we would like. Priorities are set, either thoughtfully or by default.

The false sense of security noted above can lead to ethics training, and other preventative ethics work, falling by the wayside.

Concern of offending the staff and council by suggesting the need for ethics training. Leaders can be hesitant to suggest ethics training for fear of appearing to distrust the ethical conscience of the members of their organizations. They may be concerned that the staff or their elected officials will be offended at the suggestion that there is a need for such training.

Ethics training is boring. Unfortunately, too many ethics training sessions are boring. When added to the “low priority/unnecessary” mindset, no wonder it is easy to not make such efforts a priority.

Ethical decision making is a “no brainer.” Many view ethical decision making as something straightforward and making ethical decisions as relatively easy to do.

They question why training is necessary: Who needs training to understand the difference between right and wrong?

 All of these concerns are based on false or at least exaggerated assumptions:

False sense of security and lack of recent incidents. This is a particularly easy trap to fall into if the organization has had the good fortune in recent times of avoiding an ethical problem.

It is often the case, however, that organizations that have had the good fortune of not experiencing an ethical crisis in recent times, will fail to focus on preventative efforts and will experience an ethical lapse.

It doesn’t necessarily indicate that the organization or its employees are more virtuous than other organizations or somehow immune to an ethical misstep. It may be just a matter of good luck—luck that can always run out.

Just because an organization has had the good fortune of not having experienced an ethical challenge in recent times is no guarantee that good fortune will continue.

Even in an organization with staff that by far conducts themselves honorably, it only takes one instance of bad judgment by an organization member to create an ethical crisis.

Competition for limited resources. This is particularly easy to understand in that there is never enough time or money to do all that needs to be done. What is underestimated, however, is the resources—money, time, reputation, and so forth—that will be expended if an ethical lapse occurs. The cost in time and money of prevention is actually far less than the cost of responding to an ethical crisis.

Concern of offending the members of the organization. While some may wonder why the training is being offered and may be offended since they may view ethics training as unnecessary, others will view it as a clear signal from the leaders of the organization that ethics is a priority and should not be taken for granted.

The way the concept is introduced is also critical to the organizational response. It should be made clear that preventative ethics work is a best practice for organizations and that waiting for an ethical crisis to occur is not.

As one should not wait until a health crisis to have a comprehensive physical exam even though a person might have not had noticeable symptoms, preventative ethics work should not wait for a crisis either.

Ethics training is boring. Yes, ethics training, like any other training or pretty much any other presentation, can be presented in a fashion that is less than interesting and invigorating. Good ethics training, however, can be extremely engaging. The key is having the right content that is relevant to the audience and having it presented in an engaging fashion.

The training also needs to be presented in a way that is relevant to the audience. A presentation to department heads may be different than what is presented to front-line staff.

What may be viewed as “on point” for police officers, may be different than what is presented to a group of recreation supervisors or maintenance staff. While a general presentation can often be relevant to all of these audiences, it can be helpful to use examples or case studies that reflect the work environments of a variety of the audience members.

Training on ethical decision making is unnecessary. Many of us think that making ethical decisions is easy and straightforward—you simply need to do “the right thing.” This is a big mistake.

Many, if not most, ethical issues are not straightforward. Often, individuals can make an ethical misstep without even understanding that they are making an ethical choice.

Most ethical decisions have many shades of grey and require discernment and thoughtful consideration. Training on what to consider and how to evaluate options can be critical to making the right choice.

Making the Commitment

Ethics training or any other preventative ethics work is not a guarantee that an ethical crisis will be avoided. Considering the devastating impact that ethical lapses can have on organizations and their members, decreasing the odds of such an event occurring is more than enough basis to make these efforts a priority.

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