The Ethics Buck Stops with You

Leaders are accountable for more than their own conduct; they’re also responsible for lapses “downstream” in the organization.

BLOG POST | Mar 14, 2018
By Martha Perego
Moral dilemma ahead

By Martha Perego, director of membership and ethics, ICMA

Each year during March—National Ethics Awareness Month—I like to encourage local government professionals to take time to reflect on their ethical responsibility as organizational leaders.

In a professional setting, it should go without saying that your responsibility as a leader is to walk the talk by adhering to high standards of integrity. Certainly, you’re responsible for your own actions. Your colleagues and others (elected officials, staff, residents) should expect impeccable ethical conduct from you. Furthermore, your conduct is a model for the behavior you expect of all employees.

As leaders, however, professional managers are sometimes faced with ethics challenges created by the behavior of others in the organization. What if you’re the city or county manager or assistant manager in one of these situations. What then?

  • Example: Members of the planning and economic development department took March Madness tickets from a developer.
  • Example: An elected official tells you that the buzz on the street is that the culture in the fire department is toxic and sexual harassment is rampant.
  • Example: A note left anonymously under your door alleges that some senior-level staff bypassed regulations on vacation sell back.

These examples don’t involve your personal conduct—but you still have a responsibility to act. You need to unearth the facts, take prompt and appropriate action, and keep the organization and the public informed. Beyond that, you need to take a hard look at how these lapses could have occurred in the first place and what you can do to strengthen ethics awareness among all employees and prevent similar situations in the future.

Writing for an “Ethics Matter!” column in Public Management (PM) magazine, ICMA West Coast Regional Director and Ethics Trainer Kevin Duggan has pointed out that leaders have ethical responsibility at three levels:

  • Level 1: Your personal conduct (what you did).
  • Level 2: What others did that you knew about.
  • Level 3: What others did that you didn’t know about.

The second two levels, in particular, pose risks if you fail to respond quickly, appropriately, and transparently—and if you have failed to take steps to develop ethical awareness throughout the organization. Learn from Kevin’s common-sense guidelines: “A Leader’s Three Levels of Ethical Responsibility.”

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 mperego@icma.org or 202-962-3668. Ask before you act!


ICMA Blog


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