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Graphic image of people reading the ICMA Code of Ethics

During this period of remote work, we’ve learned a lot about what adorns the walls of offices and homes. Walls—the physical ones—are mini-testimonials to who we are, as well as what we value and hold dear in our hearts. Treasured family photos, artwork, and religious symbols often grace the walls of our homes.

They serve up comforting memories and tell the inhabitants’ life story to those who visit in person or virtually. Think of all the outsiders who have had a glimpse via Zoom of your home life and what adorns your walls.

Walls at work are testaments to our life as well. They are filled with credentials, professional accomplishments, and even memorabilia that tell a bit about our humanity. A diploma, an award, or recognition by peers; a thank-you from a former staff member; community recognition; or perhaps the ICMA Credentialed Manager certificate or an ICMA service award. Each is a source of pride. They remind you of the journey, the value of hard work, and your commitment to public service. For a visitor, they convey the message that a highly skilled, dedicated professional occupies this space. On a bad day, these testaments may encourage you to push onward.

Is the ICMA Code of Ethics hanging on your wall? If not, it should be! A commitment to the principles in the Code is the quintessential definition of what it means to be a professional manager. It reflects your commitment to the highest standards of honor and integrity in both public and personal conduct so that you can merit the respect and confidence of staff, elected officials, and the public. It is an affirmation that while those credentials, competency, and work ethic are essential, the work must be centered and guided by values to be done correctly. Committing to the values of the Code is a distinguishing quality. Others may have a similar title and educational credentials, but do they adhere to the highest set of ethical standards?

Hanging the Code in a visible location serves as a reminder to always incorporate the values outlined in the Code in our decision making and conduct. It can also introduce the Code to others—be they staff, residents, or elected officials. Beyond hanging the Code on your wall, consider these three additional steps you can take to advance ethics.

Set the tone with elected officials and candidates.

While many of the tenets of the Code are important to discuss with your elected officials, the most critical is your commitment to political neutrality. In what seems to be a never-ending campaign season, have a dialogue about why you stay out of politics and how that enables you to excel in your role. Being upfront about your stance can be helpful. It can give you a gracious way to decline your neighbor’s request to fund her campaign for school board. Or when you must explain to the reporter why you simply cannot comment on whether your mayor would make a good state legislator.

Build a unified leadership team.

You recruit and promote smart, talented, and technically proficient department heads and assistants. And then you invest considerable effort to create a unified team to lead the organization. Hopefully, department directors and assistants on your team come with a strong understanding of public sector ethics. Perhaps this is a result of their membership in ICMA or in another professional association that has solid ethical standards. While the ethical climate has vastly benefited from a focus on ethics by the professional associations that support the specialties within local government, there is still a lack of uniformity of values. You might be surprised to know that staying out of politics is not addressed in the ethical standards of other professional associations. Adopting the ICMA Code of Ethics as the gold standard for your senior leadership is one way to establish common values that align with yours. One city manager made it a condition of employment in hiring department directors.

Define the values for your organization.

The foundation for having a healthy, productive, and ethical culture rests on a shared set of core beliefs and values. Do the heavy lifting to develop organizational values using an approach that engages all your staff. This will reduce ambiguity and provide clarity to staff on what is expected and what is right. If your organization already has a code of ethics, is it still viable and does it influence conduct? Is there still clarity and agreement on the core values that drive behavior and critical decisions? How do you know?

What we believe shapes how we behave. Think about the benefit of staff rowing in the same direction based on a shared set of behaviors. Remember that organizations or teams with shared values produce the best results.

At the risk of contradicting the advice offered in step one, values hanging on the wall do not change behavior, culture, or outcomes. To achieve those goals, values must be practiced daily by all and reinforced by leadership. As L.P. Cookingham noted in his advice to new managers: “Keep a framed copy of the City Managers Code of Ethics in your office. Read it once in a while. Always abide by it.”

Photo of author Martha Perego


MARTHA PEREGO, ICMA-CM, is director of member services and ethics director, ICMA, Washington, D.C. (