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.

Short rebuttal: It is that simple.

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 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, they could just assume that whatever it is will end up in the paper or blogs.)

You might ask why any organization or category of professionals requires a code of ethics amid a panoply of moral values and laws, policies and procedures. 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.

A well-developed code of ethics, on the other hand, is 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 that 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 him- or herself in accordance with a set of ethical principles that nurture trust. Those principles often 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.