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Practicing Ethics to Build Public Confidence
by Sandra Trice Gray

See the complete list of articles by Sandra Gray.

How often have we made decisions with too little information about the full impact our choices might have on others?

Taking a look at my newspaper recently, I realized that some of the news I was reading would not have become news if the people involved ? not necessarily those mentioned in the stories ? had made better ethical decisions early on. Among the items I noted:

  • an employee who didn?t promptly report information about a crime because it might have blocked completion of an important project having nothing to do with the crime;
  • a bookkeeper who followed orders from her boss to destroy financial records that might have proved wrongdoing;
  • a part-time state legislator who introduced and steered to passage a bill initiated by the legislator?s boss in his regular job; and
  • a television talk-show producer who arranged for an individual?s public embarrassment on camera for entertainment value.

While all of these people made poor ethical choices, they likely would be described by their friends and peers as "good people." Probably none of them tried to do wrong. But these are four real-life examples of the kinds of ethical choices an association?s staff or members might face at any time.

How many of us have embarrassed someone for the fun of it? How many of us have multiple interests that enable us to do something in one forum that benefits another? How many of us have done what our bosses told us to do, even though we thought it might not be right? How many of us have withheld information, believing that to do so was for the greater good? And how often have we made decisions with too little information about the full impact our choices might have on others?

Ethics is all about helping ourselves and others make wise decisions in difficult times ? when there might be multiple options and when the choices are not simple. Ethics is not only about doing what is lawful; the essential test of ethical behavior (in the words of Lord Justice Moulton) is "obedience to the unenforceable." Ethical behavior doesn?t just happen. It takes practice. And practicing ethics is a critical leadership and management responsibility.

Nonprofit organizations, as tax-exempt entities, have a special obligation to the public to establish and practice solid ethical principles. As nonprofit leaders and managers, it is our responsibility to ensure that officers, administrators, trustees, board directors, employees, and members are involved in an interactive process of ethical practice in our organizations ? a process that will empower each of us to make wise choices.

The process should help individuals wrestling with ethical challenges to ask good questions and gather relevant facts that will lead them to make wise decisions. Codes of ethics, staff discussion and involvement, and follow-up workshops are all useful parts of a process that inculcates ethics into the effective operations of our organizations.

This month, take your own personal, confidential, informal, random poll among your staff. Ask whether the staff member 1) knows whether the organization has a code of ethics; 2) knows where he or she can easily get a copy for personal reference, without asking a superior; and 3) recalls anyone discussing ethics recently within the organization. For those of us in organizations where the common answer is "no," we have work to do.


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