A wallet-sized code of ethics

There’s something about bureaucracy that violates my sense of ethics. Bureaucracy represses one’s humanity. Humans want to make a difference in their lives, but bureaucracy forces conformity and sameness. One definition in the American Heritage Dictionary is “an administrative system in which the need or inclination to follow rigid or complex procedures impedes effective action.”

The bureaucratic system is founded on rules, supervision and enforcement by specialists and inspectors to make sure workers follow the rules, even when the rules deviate from common sense.

We need to move beyond it, but moving beyond it means shifting to a different form of control, one based on a strong sense of mission and a culture of trust, with authority and responsibility shifted from the few at the top to the many front-line workers.

This shift also requires that the organization have a strong ethical grounding. Ethics must replace the missing rules, but in many organizations what passes for ethics is merely another set of rules to comply with, and ethics training usually consists of badgering workers about bribery, conflict of interest and favoritism.

Enron had a nice 65-page code of ethics. The International City/County Management Association has a pretty good code of ethics except that it’s 2000 words long, has a 3200-word supplementary “Rules of Procedure for Enforcement,” and is written by lawyers or at least by people who have mastered esoteric, lawyerly writing. Most people can’t live by the ICMA code because they simply can’t remember any of it.

Ethical grounding of an organization demands a statement of principles that its members can understand and remember. It should be no longer than what you can fit on a wallet-sized card. Here’s one I’ve come up with. You’re welcome to change “City of Metropolis” to your organization or jurisdiction, and then use it and/or amend it as needed:

Principles Of Ethical Conduct For City of Metropolis

I will:

· Do my best at work

· Avoid conflict of interest

· Speak truth to power

· Be a good citizen

· Shun any private gain from my employment

· Act impartially

· Treat others the way I would like to be treated

· Report waste, fraud, and corruption

When in doubt, my test is can I explain my actions to my mother or to my child

When you’ve decided on the principles particular to your organization, print up wallet-size cards and give them to everybody — workers, customers, voters, etc. But don’t stop there. A leader must be a teacher of ethics, and you can’t just teach by example. You’ve got to talk about — and get your team members to talk about –the ethics of every day issues. Should I argue with the boss? Should I give negative feedback to a co-worker? Should I give an unsolicited opinion?

The combination of the little cards and the talk will affect the behavior of people throughout the organization, including people you may never have the chance to meet. Workers usually want to do what’s expected of them; unfortunately too few bosses make their expectations clear. You will.

Here’s what to do next:

  1. Decide on your organization’s principles of ethical behavior;
  2. Print wallet-size cards (plastic is best) and hand them out like crazy;
  3. And look for coachable moments to align people with the principles.

(A version of this article appeared on Governing.com)

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2 Responses to “A wallet-sized code of ethics”

  1. Ethics for Bureacracies—On An Index Card « Ethics Alarms Says:

    […] can read his entire essay here. I recommend it. Bob has a long and distinguished background in that Mother of All Bureaucracies, […]

  2. Creating an Ethics-Driven Organization « Ethics Bob Says:

    […] an Ethics-Driven Organization By Ethics Bob I recently offered a wallet-sized code of ethics to replace — or at least, mitigate — the bureaucratic system of rules, supervision and […]

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