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Avoiding On-the-Edge Ethical Choices
by Sandra Trice Gray

See the complete list of articles by Sandra Gray.

Engender trust by refusing to make or condone marginally acceptable decisions.

As leaders, we must always be aware of the potential harm caused by not asking all the critical questions before making decisions that impact our members, our employees, and the organizations we lead ? particularly when a dilemma falls into an ethical gray area.

Here?s an example of a bad decision that could have caused widespread loss of trust for the association and its executive director. Recently an association reserved a golf course, owned by a board member?s cousin, to host a major fund-raiser to benefit a local homeless shelter and a sexual assault center. The association exceeded its financial goal after covering all administrative overhead. The executive director decided to handsomely tip the owner of the course ? a personal friend of his ? to ensure that the association would get the course for the next year?s event.

At the end of the year, when a volunteer who had worked on the fund-raiser overheard a conversation between the executive director and the association?s auditor regarding allocation of the remaining $20,000 to the shelter and the center, she inquired about the additional money that was raised. The executive director explained that other pending costs of the event had to be paid. The volunteer did not accept the explanation and shared her perspective indiscriminately with other members that the executive director was hiding the money and using it inappropriately and that therefore he should be fired. Her rationale was that if this was how the executive director handled money raised for a charitable event, then who knew what he might be doing with the association?s funds.

The board reprimanded the executive director but deemed his actions not grounds for dismissal. However, the board realized the need for heightened awareness as to how on-the-edge ethical dilemmas can slip into association activities.

The temptation to rationalize

Why do good people sometimes make bad ethical choices? According to Michael G. Daigneault, president of the Ethics Resource Center, Washington D.C. and Judy Belk, vice-president of community affairs for Levi-Strauss Foundation, San Francisco, people often make bad ethical choices based on any number of rationalizations. Among them:

  • a belief that the activity or decision is safe because it will never be discovered;
  • a belief that the activity or decision is within ethical and legal bounds ? that is, that the activity is not really unethical or illegal;
  • a belief that to meet a specific performance goal or schedule some corners must be cut;
  • a belief that because the activity or decision appears to help the organization, the organization would condone it and even exculpate the person who engages in the behavior; and
  • a belief that the activity or decision is in the organization?s best interest and therefore is acceptable.

Well-intentioned executives may also make bad decisions because of the pressure to respond to conflicting interests of competing stakeholders and the fear of not being able to meet the financial obligations of the organization. However, we must refuse to condone marginally acceptable decisions or behavior. We must provide ethical guidance through honest words and unquestionable actions. And we must demand that volunteers and staff members do the same.


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