A Wallet-Sized Code of Ethics

Putting trust and responsibility in the hands of front-line workers means having a strong ethical grounding.
May 5, 2010
Ethics dictionary definition
Bob Stone
By Bob Stone  |  Contributor
Bob Stone is a GOVERNING contributor. He consults, teaches ethical leadership and leading change, and serves as a member of the governing council and faculty of the Ukleja Center for Ethical Leadership at California State University, Long Beach.

You hate bureaucracy -- or else you wouldn't be reading Management Insights. You particularly hate the aspect of bureaucracy as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary: An administrative system in which the need or inclination to follow rigid or complex procedures impedes effective action.

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

You want to move beyond it, and in these days of crushing budget pressures you have 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 your 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.

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 "Metropolis" to your jurisdiction, and then use it and/or amend it as needed:

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. I wrote in an earlier Management Insights article that 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.