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Blogs / ICMA Students: Trending from Tomorrow’s Leaders / Ethics in the Real World

Ethics in the Real World

Martha Perego, ICMA director of Ethics and Membership, took some time to explain how the ICMA Code of Ethics relates to students and early-career professionals in a discussion about “Ethics in the Real World.” Her answers help clarify and illuminate the ways the Code of Ethics is relevant and important for students, as well as anyone interested in the local governement management profession. Read some excerpts from the discussion and listen to the entire talk here.

Is the ICMA Code of Ethics static or dynamic? 

“It’s very dynamic, especially right now as we go through this process of looking at all 12 tenets. That had not been done in a very long time so we’re glad we are undertaking this process and it’s important to engage our members at every single level to tell us: Do you think this is relevant? Is the language relevant? What are we missing? Are the guidelines, which really help to guide and apply the principals of the code, are they still relevant to us?”

If the Code of Ethics is so dynamic, how has it changed over time? What are we going to do now to reflect the changes in technology?

“So the code of ethics has only been amended 8 or 9 times, which in 91 years says a lot. It says that the values are pretty constant and consistent and relevant to the profession, and that we are very thoughtful when we make changes.

With social media we had a big conversation when we talked about tenet 12, because tenet 12 has the guideline that says that members working for a local government should not endorse commercials products and services, should not market the John Deer company that produces the great tractor or be on the website for your engineering firm says you know they were fabulous. You can talk to other members about the firm, but you shouldn’t be part of marketing.

We talked about social media because, if I am not allowed to endorse a commercial good or product, can I “like” some commercial product or service on Facebook. What if it is a restaurant in my town? Have I stepped over the boundaries? We had a long conversation, but in the end we decided that we probably need a guideline to address social media, but we also need to make sure it is properly positioned in the code and tenet 12 was not it. There is some conversation about whether it would be part of tenet 3 as well.

The other conversation around social media was essentially like a tenet 13 question. Do you know what Tenet 13 is? Because I talked about only having 12 Tenets to the Code of Ethics. Well, Tenet 13 is the Tenet that says “Don’t be stupid!” A lot of the things we see on social media, there is a definite need to use social media. It has a value in contributing to the communication and dialogue with your residents, but sometimes from a professional perspective we see members out on social media doing or saying things that are inappropriate. Inappropriate given the work they do in local government and their obligation to deal with people equally and fairly. The issue for ICMA will be, how do you give some really good guidance on social media that reflect its value as a tool, but also how do you not make it just about don’t say something stupid on twitter? Control your impulses and things like that. But we will be addressing the use of social media.”

Do you remember the first moment you experienced a "real" ethical challenge in the workplace and how did you deal with it?

“I do remember one particular occasion where- I worked for some great organizations, but all organizations have challenges- this particular organization the challenge really was the influence of residents and vendors with certain elected officials and the elected officials then becoming an advocate for the vendor or the resident. So on this particular occasion, I was fairly new to the job, and it was clear that an elected official was really pushing hard to amend the contract, not using the proper procedure, that unfortunately he also had the city attorney on his side. I remembers sitting in my office with my door closed, saying to the two of them, you have to do this in the right way. I’m not going to participate in anything that is illegal, which this would have been.

 There are times when there are big decisions that you face big ethical decisions, but I actually think the most important thing is to think about the little everyday decisions that we all make and trying to just make sure that our own little moral compass is serving us well in the little decisions that we make day in and day out.

You’re going to face the big real ethical decisions, no doubt, but I think it is the smaller ones and how we manage those that are really important.”

What do you wish you could have told yourself about ethical considerations when you first began your career?

 “I would actually say something that I have learned in talking about ethics with members and doing the work I have done with ICMA is that ethics is really about leadership. It’s about leadership skills and how you treat people. Early in my career I was very focused on being technically competent, advancing my career- not as fast as I could, but I was interested in moving along quickly. When I honed one skill, I was always asking, where can I hone the next one? What I didn’t stop to think about, I’m pretty sure I tried to do the right thing and I’m pretty sure I did the right thing on most occasions, and I’m sure I thought about boundaries, but what I didn’t think so much was the connection between ethics and leadership. At the end of the day you really cannot be a good contributor in your organization, you cannot be a leader in your organization, a good person, if you don’t have ethics, but really it’s about leadership. It’s about your values, it’s about the thought you give the alignment between your own personal set of values, and what are your work values, it’s about be a consistent person, it’s about being authentic, it’s about having some sense of courage so that when you face a tough situation, you’re really thinking it through, and you’re not just putting your own self-interest first. I really wish earlier in my career I had paid a little bit more attention on how I treat people and thinking less about right vs wrong and technical skills and more about the people.

If any of you read what I write about ethics or if you have ever been in any of the presentation I do. I always start with ethics is really about leadership. It’s about values. How do you implement those values in the work that you do to make sure that you have the right way to have a good outcome, and I think a lot of times people think of ethics like they are the 10 commandments. Its’ truly not- it’s about leadership and values and making sure you are a good leader.”

Do employers value ICMA membership among students or early careerists?

 “The code is really important when you are talking to perspective employers that are part of ICMA, you may be in their office and they have the code of ethics on the wall and when you talk to them and ask them about ethics, they will talk about the ICMA code of ethics being the hallmark of the profession. And how valuable it is to them in part because it truly distinguishes them as a professional. You can hire anybody to do practically any job and they might be technically competent, but do they understand the environment where they are working and have they committed to the highest standards? That is what the ICMA code of ethics does, it says I am willing to adhere to the highest level of ethical standards. I care about ethics, I may not always agree with the ICMA code, but I stop and think what I am doing and use that is a reference and a framework. Should I be doing this or not? It is very important to members that define this a professional at all levels of their career and I think that when you are out interviewing I would think members would think, wow is a student that is thinking about ethics. This is somebody who understands the importance of ethics.

Employers would look at somebody and say we don’t want to just hire the smartest person on the block, we really want to hire that smart person who understands where the boundaries are, who understands the importance of ethics in the public sector. So I do think it will be helpful to be part of ICMA, certainly helpful to be knowledgeable about the code of ethics and what you are committing to.”

How does the code apply to students or those early in their career? A lot of what is in the code seems fairly manager-focused.

“If you are a student and you are not working in local government- only tenets 1 and 3 apply to you. Tenet one is the one I call the democracy tenet. So it talks about the dedication to the concepts of effective and democratic local government by responsible elected officials and believing that professional management is essential to achieving a democracy. And then Tenet 3 which says which should be dedicated to the highest ideals of honor and integrity in all public and personal relationships so that we can merit the trust and respect of others. If you are a student and you are not working in local government, you are free to engage in political activity right now, but the question also asks about the early career individuals. Once you start to work for a local government, you are covered by all aspects of the Code. So that ability to engage in political activity on behalf of candidates is now not open to you as an option if you want to be an ICMA member.

And the second part of the question was, a lot of what is in the code seems fairly manager-focused, and I would actually acknowledge that with regards to some of the guidelines. I think the values apply to everybody. You’re thinking about the dignity and worth of services rendered by a government and how do we maintain trust and confidence and how do we make sure that we as staff are doing what we’re supposed to do to implement to policies that have been approved by elected officials.”

Do you have any good books/autobiographies you have read that have inspired you to lead ethically?

“I have the most boring bookshelf here and at home because I read a lot about ethics and leadership, and when you read leadership stories and leadership books and they talk about values, those are the books that really are most important. I took a picture of my bookcase so that you can see what I am reading.”

              Book 1Book 2
book3book 4


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