By Martha Perego
The trouble with having high ethical standards is that sometimes they get in the way of doing what’s in your personal self-interest. Consider these two scenarios encountered by ICMA members working for local governments.
Manning the Helm
Following months of public discussion about the failure of the organization to deliver on key initiatives and criticism of the manager’s leadership, the city council voted to terminate the manager. The assistant city manager understands that this is entirely the council’s call, but is totally demoralized by what she views as an unfair and arbitrary decision.
This manager, who recruited the assistant to join the city less than a year ago, has been an innovative and effective leader. If the manager who hired her gets fired and she doesn’t support the council’s decision, is it appropriate for this assistant to start searching for a new organization now?
Challenging times call for professionals to demonstrate commitment to the organization and to exercise leadership. During this difficult time of transition, the assistant’s talents and leadership are needed to encourage and support the staff and to ensure that services and organizational momentum are maintained.
All members of ICMA commit to serve a minimum of two years in a local government in order to make a professional contribution. This standard is outlined in Tenet 4 of the ICMA Code of Ethics, which states: “Recognize that the chief function of local government at all times is to serve the best interests of all of the people.”
Exceptions to the two-year guideline are limited to these special circumstances: a person is asked to leave by the appointing authority; the appointing authority doesn’t honor conditions of employment; or severe personal problems arise.
The ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct advises that the two-year tenure may be waived where there has been an agreement reached during the hiring process. This agreement between a manager and a member in transition, department head, or an assistant can include the fact that the individual may leave before the end of the two years for career advancement purposes. In this situation, there must also be no pattern of short tenures for the waiver to apply.
The assistant may not agree with the decision of the council, but she should respect their role and fulfill hers. Once she completes her two-year tenure, she can then assess her future with the organization.
After several years of playing a lead role on economic development and community-building efforts, the assistant village manager was looking outside the organization for the next challenge.
He found it as the assistant manager for a much larger county in a neighboring state. He negotiated with the county manager, signed an offer letter, and submitted his resignation to his current employer.
News of his planned departure sparked expressions of overwhelming gratitude by business leaders in the community, activists, staff, and elected officials for his contributions to the village. Most expressed their dismay at the news. The assistant was surprised by the response and started to reassess his motives for leaving.
During a heartfelt talk with the village manager about life balance and career tracks, the manager asked the assistant to reconsider. The manager then offered him a promotion to deputy village manager and more pay.
The assistant was conflicted because he had great affection for the community. Would there be any ethical issues if he withdrew his acceptance of the county offer to remain with the village?
With regard to the ICMA Code of Ethics, it’s clear that this assistant has an ethical obligation to reject the counteroffer and fulfill his commitment to the county. Tenet 3 and the guideline on appointment commitment address this situation: “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.”
The guideline on appointment commitment under Tenet 3 states that even a verbal acceptance of a bona fide offer is binding. Consider the harm a last-minute withdrawal causes to the other organization in time, recruitment costs, and attrition in the pool of qualified candidates.
The time to consider the personal and professional aspects of a career move is before you accept an offer. Keeping your word is an essential part of demonstrating integrity. Your integrity and professional reputation are on the line when you don’t live up to your commitments.
Tenets 3 and 4 are likely candidates for review as the ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct continues its overhaul of the Code. If you have stories, scenarios, or comments to share about your experience with these tenets and their related guidelines, don’t hesitate to send them to me at email@example.com.