Responding to an Ethical Crisis

Cal-ICMA's Ethics Committee will begin to feature a regular column on ethics in the Cal-ICMA Update. The following is an excerpt from PM Magazine, November 13, 2014.

Jun 26, 2017 | ARTICLE


For anyone who follows the news to even a modest degree, it is difficult to go a single day without reading or hearing about a report regarding someone caught in an ethical crisis. Invariably, the media will ask anyone even remotely associated with the reported ethical breach three questions. How individuals respond to these questions will often determine how the unfolding ethical problem will affect them.  People are oftentimes seriously challenged in responding to these questions because they can be extremely uncomfortable to answer. With more careful reflection in advance, it is likely that the questions will be much easier to answer.

Keep in mind the questions won’t only come from the media. While you should anticipate these questions from the press, also be prepared to respond to the same questions from employers, employees, community members, legal authorities, regulators, neighbors, and others.

The best way to feel confident that you will be able to answer these questions appropriately is to ask yourself the questions first—when you are deciding how to respond to an ethical challenge/dilemma. These questions are:

  • What did you know?
  • When did you know it?
  • What did you do about it?


1) What Did You Know?

Whenever an ethical breach is disclosed, the immediate question is, “Who knew about it?” It may be obvious who is/are the central figure(s) in the ethical crisis, but the media and others are going to be interested in who else was involved to any degree.

In particular, organizational members, especially organizational leaders, will be asked about their knowledge of the alleged conduct. Whether fair or not, as soon as you become aware of a real or potential ethical breach, you become part of the issue and certain obligations are created. Organizational leaders, particularly the leaders of public organizations, are expected to act once they become aware of an ethical challenge.

And, even if you can confidently answer that you did not know of the ethical breach, you may then be asked, why didn’t you know? In particular, leaders will be scrutinized by whether it would be reasonable to expect that with “due diligence” they would have known.

2) When Did You Know It?

As soon as you are made aware of even the possibility of an ethical breach, the “clock” starts ticking. How quickly you address, and in many cases disclose, the occurrence of the breach or possible breach is critical to how your conduct will be judged.

It is common for persons in authority to be judged as having responded too slowly to an ethical breach. This can be portrayed as the leader minimizing the importance of the issue, being ineffectual in responding, or worst of all, being part of a cover-up.

If the ethical issue becomes public prior to you disclosing your knowledge of the issue to appropriate parties, regardless of your intent to eventually disclose, many will conclude you were never going to address it and take action. This can be an extremely challenging issue since we are appropriately hesitant to accuse someone of an ethical breach prior to having adequate information or confirmation.

In some cases, it is appropriate to disclose the possibility of the breach to a limited audience (e.g., council/governing board, attorneys, appropriate investigative bodies) without making a public disclosure while additional information is being gathered. When and to whom the information is disclosed, however, is a critical factor.

3) What Did You Do About It?

And, of course, once you get beyond what you knew and when you knew it, you will be asked what actions you took in response to your knowledge. Did you overreact? Did you minimize the conduct? Did you do anything at all?

Action(s) you take will be viewed as your determination of the seriousness of the conduct. Modest discipline may be viewed as not understanding and appreciating the seriousness of the conduct.

Your own sense of right and wrong can be challenged by judgments regarding the actions that you take. Taking strong action can be viewed by some as appropriate, while others may view your approach as unfair and as an overreaction.

It is critical to carefully reflect on the obligations you have to all your constituencies when considering the appropriate action to take. For those of us doing work in public view, we should not be naive in regard to how our decisions will be judged by a wide array of audiences. We should never take comfort in the belief that our actions will remain sheltered from public view—they seldom will.

Often, otherwise honest and ethical organizational members and leaders become entangled in the unethical conduct of others. This can be the result of not taking the right action at the right time in response to the conduct of others.

There are reasons this occurs, including fear and uncertainty. One way to help avoid becoming the collateral damage of an ethical crisis is to ask yourself the three critical questions before someone else does.

Original Article in PM Mag | Nov 13, 2014