Ethical Crisis: Don’t Let It Happen to You

Steps you can take to avoid ethical crises in your organization.

BLOG POST | Jan 7, 2019

by Martha Perego, director of membership and ethics, ICMA

We’ve all read accounts of cringe-worthy ethical lapses, not only in the private sector but, sadly, also in local governments. It might be the procurement officer who seems to be steering business to a particular vendor, or the personal relationship between a department head and an employee he supervises, or the payroll clerk who takes advantage of a weakness in the financial control system, or the manager who allows his passion for a “cause” to compromise his commitment to political neutrality in carrying out his job.

Lapses like these can undermine trust in the local government and in you as a leader—by the governing body, by employees, and by residents. In the worst case, they can wind up as “exposés” in the local media.

Fortunately, you can take preventive measures to reduce the chances that your organization will become the focus of unwanted attention for an ethical misstep. For starters, be sure everyone in the organization understands the principles of ethical conduct and how they apply to day-to-day activities.

Policies. If you haven’t done so already, ensure that ethical expectations and obligations are outlined in a code of ethics for employees and in policies that provide unambiguous guidance regarding gifts and gratuities, nepotism, and other areas where lack of clarity can result in ethical breaches. And, of course, ensure that you have strong internal controls in place, particularly for finance.

Training. Offer ethics training to ensure that everyone in the organization is aware of and understands the code and other policies. A facilitator who is knowledgeable about local government can develop realistic scenarios for discussion to help employees see how the principles apply to work-related decisions.

Awareness. As a leader, be aware of the areas where your personal conduct can land you in hot water—using government resources for personal business, dating a colleague, fudging information on your resume, accepting even small favors from someone who could benefit from your administrative actions, or showing up at events that are clearly for the benefit of a political candidate.

Legal versus ethical. Cultivate a strong relationship with your local government attorney and be sure he or she knows the difference between what’s legal and what’s ethical for government employees. Be sure the attorney understands your obligations under the ICMA Code of Ethics, which differ in some respects from those governing the conduct of others.

See something, say something. Finally, it’s important to create an organizational culture that encourages employees to report actual or suspected unethical or illegal conduct. Let them know that you won’t punish the messenger if they bring something to your attention.

Seek guidance. The ICMA e-book Ethics Matter! Advice for Public Managers provides thoughtful, detailed guidance not only for preventing ethical disasters but also for mitigating the damage if the worst happens.

As ICMA’s director of membership and ethics, I welcome questions from members about their responsibilities under the ICMA Code of Ethics. If you want to talk about a situation you’re facing, please contact me at or 202-962-3668. Ask before you act!



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