A Discussion of Ethics

Lately I’ve been pondering questions of conflicts of interest in political life and recently declared (elsewhere) that since a certain act of omission by a certain politician made me trust him less, I knew he had made the wrong decision. I was mocked for it, I suppose because it sounds simplistic.

Yinn’s short rebuttal: It is that simple.

Cross over for long yinn.

Earlier this summer I was hired to develop an employee training course in professionalism. The challenges included defining and promoting discussion of terms such as “integrity” and “ethics,” codifying the organizational rules of conduct, providing ethics training, and producing ethical dilemmas for staff to solve.

Ethics training can be very simple and straightforward and consist of questions for employees to ask themselves when contemplating a course of action, such as, “Would I be comfortable sharing this with my supervisor?”

One question politicians could use to guide their own conduct is this: “How would I like it if this were described in the newspaper?” (Of course, it would also help if they would just assume that whatever it is will indeed end up in the paper. &/or the blogs.)

You might ask why any organization or category of professionals requires a code of ethics amid the panoply of available sets of guidelines such as moral values, laws, policies and procedures and so on. It’s that each falls short of what’s needed. With morals, we are talking about a set of beliefs that can differ from person to person and also from organizational values, while laws don’t supply the entire range and depth of standards that need to be set, and P&P change relatively quickly as “best practices” evolve in providing services to clients and customers.

A well-developed code of ethics, on the other hand, is the one complete, customized and fairly rigid component of the organizational/professional culture. It does not change much because it is harmonious with the mission, entirely reflective of core goals and values, and inseparable from institutional integrity.

Let’s look more closely at core goals and values. In my field of adult developmental/intellectual disabilities services, most agencies nowadays have at least these goals in common:

  • Promoting home and work environments that are as normalized as possible
  • Maximizing the individual’s range of choices and decision-making
  • Ensuring health and safety
  • Progress on any of these goals is contingent upon employees’ commitment to working on behalf of client best interests instead of their own. This commitment must be a part of the mission statement and in turn the mission statement is the yardstick by which every policy, procedure, job performance standard, etc., is measured.

    As in any good customer-service model, our mission/yardstick should also allow us to strive for a flexible system, which means that company policy should always facilitate the best customer service possible. Beyond that, it’s all about relationships: interagency/interpersonal cooperation, supervisory support, co-worker teamwork, and staff-client rapport. The essential ingredient in relationships is trust, and some of the qualities that engender trust include:

  • Honesty
  • Loyalty
  • Avoidance of conflicts of interest
  • Consistency of behavior
  • Generally, codes of ethics are based at least in part on a high valuation of trust for the obvious reasons; it’s the specific rules of conduct that vary based on mission, goals and other circumstances. So in the dollar-sign-dominated world of politics, for example, you find a lot more conflict-of-interest rules about disclosing financial interests than in social services, where the biggest conflict-of-interest concerns are usually boundary issues, such as how to avoid dual relationships (which combine personal or business activities with the established professional relationship).

    But are non-financial relationships important in politics? It depends upon the goals (getting elected, obtaining support for positions and policies) but if you contend–and I do–that trust and relationships are important in that arena; if you like your candidate or elected person to be associated with the word “integrity” and so forth; then that person must conduct himself in accordance with a set of ethical principles that nurture trust, and those principles sometimes demand more than simple adherence to the letter of the law.

    Meaning if the ethical person’s action (or failure to act) results in my trusting him less, then that person has erred–ethically speaking.



    State Officials and Employee Ethics Act, adopted by the City of DeKalb.

    5 thoughts on “A Discussion of Ethics”

    1. Ethical conduct is an admirable goal for any organization. However, ethics cannot be codified or legislated. That’s because a person’s ethics are formed over the course of their lives. By the time someone becomes a public servant, they have already defined their ethics through a thousand actions since their childhood.

      Take, for example, someone for whom the truth is merely a passing acquaintance. A lifetime of passing falsehoods off as reality will not easily be tossed aside, simply because a commission, a city, a state, has a formal policy on the ethical behavior of public officials.

      We see it at NIU, where I work. People routinely pass the state ethics test, a quaint, ten question quiz that you can keep taking until you get a 10 out of 10. But you still hear stories of people who photocopy or print things at work for use at home. Yes, there is a law. And, yes, the person passed the test. Ergo, they must be ethical.

      Not so. At best, ethics guidelines do not create or mold behavior, they simply provide a remedy for those situations where a person’s ethics cross the line. Our mayor didn’t publicly disclose his relationship with the folks involved in the Fifth Ward controversy. My alderman flat-out lied to his own supporters on the eve of the election, and it took the newspaper to uncover the truth.

      Yet here we are: a mayor whose credibility has taken a slight hit, and an alderman who not only has lost the trust of the people, but who has so angered some that they have dug up personal financial problems of the alderman and published them on the internet.

      I work often with students, and I always tell them that ethics is not something you should learn, nor expect to learn, from a textbook and a three-credit course. It is something that you should learn from the people you surround yourself with in life. It’s something you should learn from your parents, your religious and/or spiritual beliefs, the conduct of those you admire and trust.

      I appreciate the efforts of those who attempt to codify and delineate ethical behavior in public and private service. I am afraid that such codes are, much like police work, only effective after someone has crossed the line. They are mostly unnecessary for those who bring high character and integrity with them to their positions.

    2. Brien, I partly agree with you and partly don’t.

      Some people will always choose the right thing, some will always choose the wrong thing. They are not the people I’m trying to reach.

      Some have never really thought about it and act automatically or have had such chaotic upbringings that they have to learn behavioral boundaries when they are adults. These are people I’m trying to reach.

      Some will behave well if they know our specific expectations and/or that they are being held to the standard if they are being watched/monitored/supervised. These are also people I’m trying to reach.

      Then there’s the fact that ethical dilemmas–two “right” actions appearing to be in conflict–do actually occur, in which case having a vocabulary for describing the conflict can be helpful when guidance is sought. Here I think I can help, too.

      I haven’t yet read very much of the Illinois rules but will comment on them anyway. I think an out-and-out gift ban and a few other very basic rules might possibly fit all Illinois employees but the bulk of the work needs to be done in-house, institution by institution.

      One thing you said that I really like is about who you surround yourself with. If you admire someone in your circle for something, such as integrity, why not make that person a role model for integrity? Pick apart what exactly it is that this person does and emulate it. My own example is that my family was very, very bad at making apologies but in adult life I’ve learned that, when called for, a real apology is indispensible in maintaining credibility and good will. I simply copied people who were good at them and now it’s part of the repertoire.

      Thanks for your thoughts on this.

    3. Oh–one more thing before I get back to work. I’m glad that you made a distinction between the lapse in the 5th Ward vs. the disgrace in the 3rd. Certainly there’s a matter of degree here, a big one.

    4. Yinn,

      When it comes to ethics, there are truly as many ways to approach introducing the concepts as there are ways around the rules.

      I’m a bit cynical in my approach, if only because my profession (accounting) took such a huge hit after Enron, because we blindly assumed that everyone who accepted the responsibility accepted the Code of Conduct of the AICPA.

      As it turns out, that wasn’t the case. It was then, perhaps more than ever before, that I realized ethics isn’t something you can codify (the Code for the AICPA is rather clear and strict), if the people involved don’t have a good moral compass.

      But you are right … having a code in place does, at the very least, set the bar for expectations. And even folks who might be tempted in the absence of expectations will want to stay in the good graces of those evaluating their overall performance.

      There is always a percentage who will always do the right thing … a percentage who will never do the right thing … and everyone in between. Your job (or mine) would be to try and have as many of the in-between folks leaning towards doing the right thing as humanly possible. A written code would go a long way in herding people to see the light.


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