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A dialogue on ethics.

Dear Dadie:

Have you noticed a resurgent concern about ethics? If strategic planning was the buzzword of the late 1980s, vision and ethics are the buzzwords of the early 1990s.

What's the bit deal? Are we just trying to assuage our consciences for the gross excesses of the last decade?

Codes of ethics and the limiting influence of antitrust laws have been around for years. Most organizations, including ASAE, already have a code you can hang on a wall. So what?

The reading of the code of ethics is a ritual like the reading of airline safety instructions that no one listens to. One hopes that the ritual incantation is absorbed by osmosis into the listener's value system. It is an adult version of the Boy Scot resitation of scout characteristics.

Besides, your values are formed well before you get into a trade or profession. If you are sleazy, it's unlikely your association's code of ethics will change your values and the behaviors that flow from them.

A code is usually a laundry list of ethical pronouncements. Most of the provisions are clear enough. The real problems arise when two ethical principles come into conflict. Take a look at ASAE's standards of conduct, for example.

It's easy to say "don't steal," "be fair," "don't work for self-interest ahead of professional interest," "don't cheat," "be loyal," and so on. What gets tough is resolving conficts among these values. What if you come across a piece of privileged information you are bound not to disclose under ASAE code item eight, but loyalty to your association requires disclosure under item three?

Let me know your thinking on this. While we may disagree--hell, we almost always do--I'd like to open a dialogue on ethics.


P.S. But I'm tired of talking about fam trips, okay?

Dear Henry:

I get nervous when anyone in Washington, D.C., wants to talk about ethics, but I'll put 20 percent of my learned cynicism in neutral and try. Ethics is a hot topic because it's easier to talk about than practice.

For association executives, looking beyond the code of ethics is long overdue. I doubt there is an association executive who hasn't compromised at least one ethical principle in the last year. It was probably without the least inkling of having done so, but if ignorance of the law is no defense in criminal issues, should ignorance of ethical principles be an excuse for unethical behavior?

When was the last time we spoke about caring and loyalty, two intrinsically ethical principles? Or attended a workshop on meshing personal and orgnaizational ethics? How often have we heard a colleague talk about axing staffers who are "over the hill," using loyalty to the organization as a rationale? Why does loyalty to the organization have greater value than loyalty to the individual?

This reasoning follows as well for your example of loyalty to the organization versus protecting privileged information. Is it ethical for you to promise confidentiality when a whistleblower on your staff offers important information on the condition that you won't tell anyone? Why can't we use our creativity to find the middle ground that could protect both the individual and the organization? We don't do it because the ethical values are often assumed to be less important than, or directly in conflict with, business decisions. Hogwash.

Your laundry list of ethical values seems straightforward enough, but one item has me puzzled. Since when is self-interest (whether ahead of or behind professional interest) a lapse of values? Cannot self-interest motivate you to get out of bed in the morning? To brush your teeth? Go to graduate school? Read GQ? Do 40 push-ups?

You will have to be patient with me. I approve of self-interest, unless or until it's at the expense of someone else's self-interest. A classic example is the executive who builds her organization way beyond what the volunteers want it to be, to meet arbitrary benchmarks of excellence like a continuing escalation of budget and staff growth.

Perhaps the greatest executive is one who will respect volunteer leadership and judgment and focus her effort on program development. Yet in a pure example of self-interest, the exec who is eager for peer recognition will push those budget and staff growth buttons hardest. That is unethical self-interest in my book, to say nothing of shortsighted and probably self-destructive too.

Let met pose some other questions. Is it ethical to raid a colleague's staff? Is it ethical for you to offer your president-elect's family your Aspen condo, even if you have a single slate? What ethical principles will help me decide what is and isn't ethical? And what if my principles are different from yours?

A really good place for anyone to begin examining his or her own ethics is to consider three basic measures. Ask yourself if your proposed action would pass these tests:

1. The Golden Rule--do unto others ... (well, if you don't know that one, this dialogue stops right here).

2. What would your children say about your decision? And if your kids are like mine, how would you deal with their three different answer?

3. How would you feel if your decision appeared on the front page of the most important local paper?

Eagerly, Dadie

Dear Dadie:

I agree the whistleblower case is a conundrum similar to the general situation I suggested: the conflict of two ethical values. In my weaselly way, I would sidestep the conflict and find a way to use the information without revealing the source. But asuming I could not finesse the situation, I would be forced to that calculation we all hate: trying to determine which of the alternative consequences--breach of confidentiality or damage to the organization--is of greater significance. But I still favor imaginative finesse whenever possible.

You also raise the issue of self-interest: It is indeed the greater motivator. But self-interest with no countervailing interest is boring. One could argue that acting in one's own best interest when there is no damage to anyone is perfectly okay.

I am reminded of the judge who came into court one day and said, "Last night the plaintiff's lawyer came to my chambers and gave me $ 5,000 to decide the case in his client's favor. This morning the defendant's lawyer visited me and gave me $10,000 to decide in her client's favor. I am proud of my reputation for fairness and justice. I am returning $5,000 to the defendant's lawyer and will decide the case on its merits."

But seriously, acting in your self-interest at the cost of your association is a no-no. ASAE clearly says so. And surely we spend all of our time at ASAE meeting improving our skills, not wasting our association's resources on fellowship, good times, and networking for our next job.

Where does your obligation of loyalty to your association stop and your obligation to yourself begin? For example, the association chief staff executive is frequently called upon to advocate policies to the public or to chapters, related organizations, employees, and others.

What do you do--should you do, are obligated ethically to do--if your association takes a stand contrary to a closely held personal value? Maybe it depends on external matters. You have two kids in college and an ailing relative that you support. There's a very slow job market, and at 55 it's hard to find new employment.

Should the outcome depend on the importance of the issue in your ponoply of values? Your organization adopts a policy to pursue a tax break that is entirely self-serving, or it supports a change in the law that would restrict entry into the field without real public benefit. Or it supports--or opposes--legislation to fund abortion-on-demand, and you personally favor an alternative position. You are expected not just to go along with the decision but on vigorously advocate it.

What do you think about when the problem wakes you up in a cold sweat at 3 o'clock in the morning?

Expectantly, Henry

Dear Henry:

The questions you pose smack of situational ethics, an oxumoron I abhor. When it comes to ethics, I am a strict constructionist. Being ethically correct when one is 30, single, and eminently employable is certainly laudable. But it should not follow that the weight of years and responsibilities should make one more likely to b ethically incorrect at 55 with five children. Rather, age should enable one to make ethical judgments with the confidence experience allows.

In ethics, there should be little room for mitigating circumstances. Only when two ethical principles collide do we have to choose, and then the choice must be the one with the least possibility of damage to an individual.

If your association adopts a policy or practice that is so antithetical to your own value system as to make public support impossible, that must be shared with leadership. The time to do so is before the fact. The ethical and tactical questions for the executive are

1. At what point do I intervene?

2. How do I share my concerns?

3. What alternatives can I suggest?

4. Will my position be threatened if I am candid with leadership about my views?

5. How far am I prepared to go to save my position?

6. How far can I expect my association to go to save me?

7. Is this an association I want to work for?

The association may well be asking some questions, too, especially if hypothetical execs Harry and Maria have proven their value over the years:

1. Why is Harry so opposed to this policy?

2. What negative outcomes does Maria see that we have overlooked?

3. Is there another approach to this issue?

4. How important is adoption of this policy to our operation and effectiveness?

5. If we don't go ahead with this, what are the ramifications?

6. If we proceed to adopt this policy, what role will we require Harry and Maria to play?

It is up to Harry and Maria to establish an ethical climate well before a crisis so that taking an ethical stand when it is needed is neither surprising nor distasteful. Effective executives create an organization environment by example, not by edict. It provided defensible criteria against which timely ethical decisions can be made. It is an executive's responsibility, along with volunteer leaders, to position the organization so that it and the industry or profession it represents are always credible.

It is not the organizational code of ethics that will help or hinder Harry and Maria. It is their internal set of values that should guide their actions. The official code is just one tiny weapon in their ethical arsenal, and one which they should have been certain was in sync with their personal values before they signed on with the association. Is this too idealistic for your tastes? Do I sound like Pollyanna Perlov again? That's the real me, Henry, and it has served me well.

Which brings us to the when question, for of course there is a point when Harry and Maria might breech their ethics and princples. That is probably for nothing short of life or death. It's certainly not for selling tainted baby formula because you have two kids in college and an ailing aunt. Even if the formula won't kill babies, just sicken them a bit. And it's not for espousing supply-side economics when you're really a New Dealer to the core. It just ain't worth it.

Signed, Her Holiness in New York

Dear Dadie:

As usual you are almost right. It may be that my position in more flexible and adaptable than yours.

While I agree (see, I can do that) that age does not change the analysis, we disagree about whether specific responsibilities to others--family, local community, nation--should be weighed.

Even you in your ethical purity admit that it is legitimate to ask about the threat to one's job from speaking out. But let's get down to brass tacks.

The issue in your hypothetical example is that your organization is supporting the sale of tainted formula that will cause babies to become sick. Harry and Maria should oppose the policy. Early in the process is, I agree, the best time to raise concerns. The arguments they should offer include

1. It may not be legal.

2. It will rebound to the detriment of the organization and the industry in the long run.

3. It does not represent a judgment that "the reasonably prudent person" would make, and might subject the board to individual liability and worse.

But situations are rarely that simple. What if credible scientific data show that while a few children will become ill but recover, an equivalent number who would otherwise die will survive and thrive? What should you do? What if more would survive and thrive than sicken? What if the problem arose because mothers did not, for a variety of reasons, use boiled or purified water to reconstitute the formula, and the tainted water problem was not anticipated?

What about supply-side versus Keynesian New Deal economics? Here we are dealing more with faith and theory than certain reality. The key question you omit is, "How sure am I that I am right and they are wrong?"

I may believe that Laffer's "Reaganomics" explains the world better than Keynes, but my sense of certainty is low. Is it therefore okay to advocate a position I do not strongly disagree with? Strength and depth of feeling has to be incorporated in the balance.

This raises another debate. On a point of principle or strategy, is it better to stay inside the organization and fight for change, or resign? Is it easier or safer when you are a volunteer board member than when, as a staffer, you risk income and future references? We both have been on boards that made decisions we thought were wrong, even flat out stupid and counterproductive, yet we stayed. How can we argue that one should jeopardize a career when we won't even sacrifice prestige, the opportunity to effect change, or whatever else keeps us on the board?

Do we delude ourselves, clinging to slight signs of organizational change that seem to move in the right direction? Or do we really say, as organizational inertia has its way, "Well, we fought the good fight even if we have no victories. Besides, the process was fun and no real harm was done."

I remain, as ever, The Optimistic Cynic

Dear Cynical Optimist:

I do want the last word, albeit a brief one. The questions posed in your last letter are ones to which we tend to give ourselves the most comforting answers. We stay on in the job because we can do more on the inside. And maybe only a few babies will get sick because their mothers are too dumb to boil the formula water.

Then along come middle-age crisis and images of Gauguin's journey to Tahiti. As we get "closer to the grave than to the diaper," as speaker John Schuster puts it, the ethics and values issues come to the fore, and the frantic search for meaning enters our lives.

How wonderful if we could explore more of that earlier, examine those tough issues in our youth, question where our organizations weigh in on the ethical sales and how we feel about our own roles.

It is important to remember that not every argument has an ethical and an unethical side. To believe there is always a good guy and a bad guy is to believe in the tooth fairy. There are as many arguments and ethical dilemmas between two good guys as two bad guys; most arguments are based more on emotional positions than supportive data, so the question of right and wrong is truly academic.

Ethical people can disagree. It is only when basic ethical principles are in jeopardy that I become exercised. These principles are best articulated for me by Michael Josephson of the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics, Marina Del Rey, California. It is remarkable that in this competitive and avaricious age, Josephson cheerfully announced to the world that his list of 11 principles may be reproduced at will, since by design he has no copyright protection. Now, there is a credible man on this subject.

Until we meet on the field of battle again, I will try to keep my ethical standards unsullied and feel certain that you will do the same--at least as far as the situation allows.

Respectfully, Dadie

Dadie Perlov, CAE, is president of Consensus Management Group, Harriman, New York. Henry Ernstthal, CAE, is executive director of the master of association management degree program at George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
COPYRIGHT 1992 American Society of Association Executives
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Author:Ernstthal, Henry
Publication:Association Management
Date:Feb 1, 1992
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