How Would It Look in the Paper?

There is more than one way to look at appearances vs. reality when it comes to ethical behavior.
August 19, 2009 AT 3:00 AM
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.

Appearances matter. Where there's smoke there's fire. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably a duck.

We're continually warned to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Many state and local ethics codes advise us to judge the ethics of a proposed action in part by how it will look in the newspaper. Machiavelli explained, "The great majority of mankind are satisfied with appearances, as though they were realities, and are more often influenced by the things that 'seem' than by those that 'are.'"

Those of us with a long history in the public sector can recall urging our employees to avoid doing things they would not want to read about in the morning newspaper. Bob Stone and Mike Ukjela suggest that the "newspaper question" remains a reasonable one for today's public managers to ask, but caution against its customary use as an ethical test. Innovation and good ethical decisions may in fact lead to negative newspaper articles; sometimes it's worth the risk. Bad ethical decisions, likewise, can stem from a desire to avoid bad press. Bob and Mike call attention to both scenarios.

- Stephen Goldsmith

But appearances are not realities, and, "How will it look in the newspaper?" is not related to ethics. It might be, if newspapers adhered to the highest ethical standards we aspire to, but sadly, newspapers slip up like the rest of us. Newspapers -- and other media -- rake in readers by reporting scandal. When real scandal is in short supply, they may have to invent some, and then ethical behavior can be made to look very bad indeed.

Readers of the Los Angeles Times picked up their paper on June 7, 2006, to see this lead to a story splashed across the front page of the California section.

"One recent Friday, while thousands of motorists were suffering through freeway traffic from the San Fernando Valley to downtown Los Angeles, Police Chief William J. Bratton skipped the congestion and made the trip in a fraction of the time, buzzing from Van Nuys to Parker Center [police headquarters in downtown Los Angeles] in a city helicopter."

The headline read, "Chief Says LAPD Flights Save Time, Money," but any reader would have assumed that the chief must have done something wrong, or else why would the paper have printed the story?

Bratton's behavior looked very bad in the newspaper. But the only ethical violation that day belonged to the paper itself. Bratton wasn't getting any personal benefit from his exhausting travel schedule. He was furthering his extraordinarily successful work to cut crime and to change the culture of the LAPD. His intensive travel let every cop see him and hear firsthand what the new chief demanded of the department

Had Bratton applied the "how would it look" test, he would have done much less traveling and been a much less successful chief.

Even though appearances aren't reality, and even though ethical behavior can appear unethical and vice versa, appearances do matter, for business reasons if not for ethical ones. Unfavorable publicity like the Los Angeles Times story on Bill Bratton can inhibit bold-but-proper behavior.

So it's not a bad idea to ask yourself, before making a decision, "How would it look in the newspaper?" But that's a business decision, not an ethical one. Our guess is that Bill Bratton would willingly have risked the unfavorable story rather than give up his style of leadership-by-presence.

There is sometimes, however, a valid connection between the appearance of ethical behavior and the reality of ethical behavior. For example, a position requiring impartiality, like a judge, also requires the appearance of impartiality. If the arresting officer appears to be buddy-buddy with the court bailiffs, the scales of justice are tipped because the defendant's expectation of a fair trial is diminished.

Similarly, when a person in a leadership position does something ethical that appears unethical, her followers may get the idea that they're part of an unethical organization, or worse, that unethical behavior is all right. The ethical leader has an obligation to explain herself when she takes an action that might appear ethically wrong or questionable.

This obligation is widely misunderstood. Leaders often avoid explaining their behavior to subordinates for a variety of reasons. They don't want to appear defensive, or they don't have a satisfactory explanation, or they may just belong to the "never explain" crowd. But since leaders teach by everything they do -- walking, talking, standing still, or being silent -- it's important that they explain questionable-looking behavior.

Explanation is especially important because leaders are in the business of changing things, and many people's ethical grounding is based on what is. "That's the way it's always been done" is often a simple and comfortable guide to what's permissible or ethical. Since leaders are in the business of not doing things the way they've always been done, their behavior is easily misunderstood. Indeed, leaders are often in the business of smashing organizational norms of behavior. When they do, they'll need to make it clear that breaking the norms is part of the new way of doing business, not just an attitude of "the rules don't apply to me."

The "never explain" school of leadership doesn't work when the leader's action may appear unethical. Neither does the "watch what I do, not what I say" school. Absent a clear explanation, people are left to infer that the leader is a law unto herself -- a particularly bad lesson in ethics.

While "How would it look in the paper?" is a good question to ask before making a business decision, "How would it look to the staff?" is the more important question affecting the ethical health of an organization. A better test of the ethics of a hypothetical action is "Can I explain it to my mother (or to my child)?" If either of those questions makes you uncomfortable, you can be pretty sure that in your gut you believe the action is unethical. For ethical people like us, that may be the best of all tests.