How do you view ethics? Be honest. Some may roll their eyes when it comes time for the annual ethics training as we anticipate a six-hour session full of tricky legal terminology and unrealistic scenarios. Always included is the proverbial list of dos and don’ts to remind us of what we can and cannot do in the daily practice of public management. In the worst case, we may even nod off during lengthy philosophical discussions of the foundations of ethical thought in human history. Socrates, Cicero, and Plato were brilliant to be sure, but an entire day of hearing their metaphysical views might be a bit exhausting and difficult to apply.

Still, ethics, or shall we say, the lack thereof, makes itself known daily in the public service environment. Within the last several months, there has been a flurry of activity in cities and counties across the United States—all with an eye toward ethical reform. Ethics commissions at all levels continue to examine potential corruption among public employees, contractors, lobbyists, and political candidates. Professional conduct remains a focus in our attempts to foster workplaces of safety, civility, and inclusion. Conflicts of interest and the appropriate use of scarce public funds by elected officials is always on the radar. And finally, the COVID-19 outbreak has launched a new series of ethical queries around testing, masks, and access to vaccines. 

At issue here is the very trust our citizens have in their government. Populations expect their public servants to make sound ethical decisions in the public interest. But the simple fact is that not many of our residents trust government to begin with. Oh, they like government well enough. They’ll tolerate it. Most approve of the way government handles specific community needs. Public safety, healthcare, the environment, and roads all get passing marks. But trust is a different story altogether. 

Only 20 percent of Americans trust the government to do the right thing just about always or most of the time. But that would be the government in Washington. At the local level the picture is a little brighter. A 2020 Gallup survey shows trust levels in local government to be 69 percent for Republicans, 67 percent for independents, and 79 percent for Democrats—numbers that have held remarkably consistent for almost 50 years. Compared to an average trust level of 33 percent for Congress and 43 percent for the executive branch, this isn’t too bad, though work remains to be done.

Trust matters, which is why it’s imperative for public servants to keep ethical considerations in the forefront. One of the most common benefits of a trusting public is their willingness to conform with local mandates. Compliance with laws and regulations is especially critical for the safety of our neighborhoods. And with community reactions to COVID-19, trust can become a life-or-death matter.

Where We Stand

Many of us consider ourselves to be principled managers and leaders. It’s a normal human perspective. We want to see the best in ourselves and others so we’re more likely to assess ourselves as ethical, and in some cases more ethical than average. But upon closer examination, ethics isn’t quite so easy. Take the well-known Trolley Problem, introduced by English philosopher Philippa Foot. In modern language, the dilemma presents itself as follows:

You’re standing in the subway and you see that an approaching train is out of control and is positioned to kill five people. Standing next to you, in between the oncoming train and the five people, is a man wearing a large backpack. You realize that the only way to spare the lives of the five people is to push the man onto the tracks below, allowing his body and the large backpack to stop the train from reaching the others. What would you do? (Foot, 1967)

Troubling, isn’t it? Do you push the backpack guy in the way of the train and save the five people? Do you allow the five others to die knowing you could have saved them? Do you try to grab the backpack, put it on, and jump in the path of the oncoming train yourself? Such are the ethical dilemmas that philosophers like to ponder.

The good news is that the ethical challenges we confront as public managers are far less dramatic than this one. Only in the rarest of cases are we ever going to be faced with a decision that would result in something as tragic as a loss of life. However, there’s bad news— the moral quandaries we encounter are far more common. In fact, they occur almost daily. Consider the following:

  • We tell someone we are sorry we missed their call or email, when in fact we simply ignored it because we didn’t want to deal with it.
  • We show ourselves in the most positive light, taking more credit than we deserve and shifting blame elsewhere.
  • We never follow through, and we never really intend to. We just say we’re going to because it will get us out of an uncomfortable situation.
  • We look the other way when we witness unkind or unjust acts.
  • We give a performance evaluation that isn’t honest and forthright by telling someone, “you’re doing just fine!” when in reality they aren’t.

These are the real-life struggles that we all face as we manage our public organizations and we’re not alone. The 2020 Global Business Ethics survey revealed that one out of every five employees feel they are being asked to lower their ethical standards. And it’s worse for top managers. They are twice as likely to feel pressured for ethical compromise. In our hypercompetitive environment, these managers may be under pressure to meet strategic goals for agency performance, cut costs, or reduce services. Other organizational forces may be at play as well. Managers may feel it’s unsafe to speak up and challenge practices they see as inappropriate if they wish to stay in the good graces of top leadership. The organizational culture may be one of ‟stay in your lane” where open discourse is not accepted. Finally, senior leadership may set a negative tone through their behaviors.

What We Can Do

It’s not that we’re bad people. We aren’t. When you consider the pressures faced in the decision-making process, it’s no wonder that we fall short on occasion. So many variables go into making sound decisions—identifying problems, seeking alternatives, finding resources, assessing performance, determining long-term viability and short-term effectiveness, evaluating—it’s no wonder ethical considerations get lost on occasion. The problem is that it’s those very principles that are the most important in the decisions we make. Strategic plans and budgets come and go. Decision-making models come and go. But the impact our decisions have on others is lasting, and the effects of unethical practices on public organizations and the communities they serve are enduring.

Placing an ethical frame around the choices we make is much easier than it sounds.  Sometimes it can be as simple as a checklist that we refer to when faced with a difficult decision. In Donald Zauderer’s groundbreaking 1993 article, “Winning with Integrity,” he outlines several principles that can help guide us through the maze of decision-making.

Evaluate moral considerations. This begins with encouraging the input of others, carefully and honestly opening yourself to their opinions. Listen intently. Take the time to assess various interests and values. Do your homework. And don’t forget a good dose of self-assessment so that you clearly identify your personal motives.

Safeguard the public trust. A must for the public servant. In fact, it is the very reason the public service exists. Loyalty to the public and the law must supersede allegiance to elected officials and private interests. Any sense of the appearance of impropriety must be dealt with immediately.

Take risks. By allowing unjust behavior to go unaddressed, we are committing one of the most egregious ethical transgressions. When doing so, we become compliant with, and party to, unacceptable activities. Managers must refuse to accept actions that are ethically wrong and support others who have the courage to call attention to wrongdoing.

Exhibit humility. Clearly one of the most difficult acts in a “me-first” era, humility allows for a bond with others that facilitates open discourse and honest feedback. The mutual trust and respect that follows in organizations where this occurs will ensure long-term mission accomplishment.   

Communicate truthfully. Providing the accepted spin on a message is never acceptable if we wish to keep others informed. Senior officials deserve to hear the real story. Those we lead require that we share all relevant information with them in order to facilitate their work. Failure to communicate truthfully in either direction sows the seed of distrust throughout the organization.

Deal fairly. Equitable treatment should extend to all, not a select few. This may include providing equal opportunity for all employees regardless of race, color, religion, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, age, or disability. All deserve the basic tenets of free consent, privacy, free speech, and due process.

Honor agreements. Intention is only intention, and purposefully failing to follow through on agreements constitutes an ethical oversight. This includes the spirit on the agreement in addition to the written letter. Don’t shortchange your colleagues with nitpicky alterations to agreed-upon courses of action.

Accept blame. Difficult? Yes. Critical? Yes. Acknowledging personal responsibility is a form of humility and earns the respect and admiration of friends. Ask questions to better to understand your role in an issue and publicly demonstrate your commitment to improving your future performance.

Respect the dignity of individuals by giving earned recognition. Another example of humility in action. The myriad of personalities, values, beliefs, and cultures in our workplace makes each individual contribution tantalizingly and beautifully unique. Revel in this often.

Suppress envy. Envy is sometimes referred to as counting the blessings of others instead of your own. Find comfort in the unique talents you bring to the organization and refrain from an unhealthy want of what others have. Celebrate the talents and good fortune of others. They’ll do the same for you.

Support employee development. The only untapped resource we have is the limitless talent and contributions of others. Foster this by building the next generation of managers. Provide honest appraisals, mentoring, coaching, and training. Push them to grow beyond their aspirations.  

Forgive individuals. And forget. Move on. We all make mistakes and the negative vibe that surrounds our inability to forgive poisons future trust in relationships. Forgiveness allows for a second chance, and ofttimes that’s all someone needs to excel. Stay positive and give the benefit of the doubt unless actual performance dictates otherwise.

Extend self. This is the hallmark of a true leader, one who is willing to offer self in the process of supporting and growing those around them. Some call it servant leadership. Regardless of the term, it sends a strong message to others that you will provide help when it matters.  

This is not an exhaustive list though we readily admire Zauderer’s contribution here. Other considerations include developing and maintaining a strong sense of emotional intelligence, especially in the areas of self-awareness and self-management. Also, we know that best practices matter, and we should learn from them. But what matters more is addressing our own thinking and striving to become as inclusive and welcoming as possible. All of these principles, combined with the those previously mentioned serve as a sound starting point for evaluation of our ethical frames.

Final Thought

Public managers are the personification of all that our constitution has come to represent—equality, representativeness, and fairness. They are the gatekeepers for dignity and grace in an ever-increasing undignified and graceless environment. It’s no mistake that they are held to a higher standard of performance than those who don’t serve the public directly. Our communities depend on the decency, fairness, and the ethical integrity of our public servants.

In 1788, James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 51, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.” He was on to something, despite his gender-specific prose. Madison knew that human beings were not angels by nature. Consciously or unconsciously, we must commit to a journey of ethical discernment in our thinking and behavior. When we do, our best decisions are yet to come!

 PATRICK S. MALONE, PhD, is the director, Key Executive Leadership Programs, American University. His new co-authored book, Leading with Love and Laughter—A Practical Guide to Letting Go and Getting Real, (Berrett-Koehler Publishing) will be released in May 2021. (



2. Federalist, No. 51.
3. Foot, P. (1967). "“The Problem of Abortion and the Doctrine of the Double Effect,” Oxford Review. Number 5.
6. Zauderer, D.G. (1994). “Winning with Integrity.” The Public Manager, Summer, p43‐46.