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Leading by Doing: Conducting a Personal Ethics Audit

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Richard Jacobs
September 4, 2015

In a recent Journal of Management Systems article, Carole Jurkiewicz and Glen Vogel of Hofstra University discuss an ethics audit, defining it as “a rubric for assessing an organization’s ethical compliance and its elements.” Those elements include cultural values, organizational governance and legal compliance. The data generated are compiled into a report identifying the organization’s current state of ethicality. It also highlights areas for improvement as well as provide a benchmark against which future audits can be measured and assessments made.

While an ethics audit provides a tool for public administrators to build more ethical public service organizations, shouldn’t they first audit their personal state of ethicality? After all, ASPA’s Code of Ethics requires public administrators to “demonstrate personal integrity” by adhering to the highest standards of conduct that will inspire public confidence and trust in public service. It would seem that a personal audit would set the appropriate tone—leading by doing—for an organization’s ethics audit.

What might this audit look like?

One approach might utilize the Code’s practices, which specifies eight behaviors that public administrators should exemplify in their conduct. Public administrators would ask themselves: Do I and how do I…

  1. Exercise integrity, courage, compassion, benevolence and optimism?
  2. Maintain truthfulness and honesty and not compromise for advancement, honor or personal gain?
  3. Resist political, organizational and personal pressures to compromise ethical integrity and principles and support others who are subject to these pressures?
  4. Accept the responsibility and the consequences of my actions?
  5. Guard against using public position for personal gain or to advance personal or private interests?
  6. Zealously guard against conflict of interest or its appearance?
  7. Conduct official acts without partisanship or favoritism?
  8. Ensure that others receive credit for their work and contributions? 

Responses provide the data. However, these data could be unduly subjective, threatening the report’s validity.

Public administrators might also begin by asking their followers to respond to those eight questions. This data would be more objective; however, an Ethics Research Center (ERC) report indicates that followers assess a leader’s ethicality using different criteria.

In the private sector, the most important factor workers correlate with ethical leadership is personal character. Regardless of a company’s size, followers use three criteria to assess this factor:

  • Experience gained through interactions with leaders.
  • How leaders conduct themselves during crises.
  • The policies and procedures leaders establish and uphold. 

The report also found that midlevel, direct supervisors demonstrate ethical leadership that can significantly impact followers. Followers indicate ethicality evidencing itself when direct supervisors:

  • Model good behavior.
  • Keep promises.
  • Uphold company standards. 

Helpful as this second approach might be, these concepts are vague. They can be interpreted in a variety of ways, threatening the report’s validity.

How might public administrators conduct a personal ethics audit that avoids undue subjectivity and overly vague concepts?

A third approach would restate the practices of Principle #6 in the form of prompts. Public administrators would then invite followers to submit vignettes anonymously for as many prompts as possible. For example, followers would:

  1. Describe how I exercise integrity, courage, compassion, benevolence, and optimism.
  2. Identify a situation where I was truthful and honest, not compromising either for advancement, honor, or personal gain.
  3. Relate how I resist political, organizational, and personal pressures to compromise ethical integrity and principles and supports others subject to these pressures.
  4. Recount an interaction where I took personal responsibility for my actions as well as the consequences of those actions.
  5. Identify how I guard against using my public position for personal gain or to advance my personal or private interests.
  6. Narrate a situation where I zealously guarded against a conflict of interest or its appearance. If possible, detail how I disclosed any interests that might have affected objectivity in making decisions and recused myself from participating in those decisions.
  7. Describe how I have conducted official acts without partisanship or favoritism.
  8. Relate a situation where I ensured that others received credit for their work and contributions. 

Providing followers the opportunity to describe these practices, this audit offers objective and concrete feedback, identifying how public administrators demonstrate personal integrity. The greater the number of responses to each prompt yields data indicating how followers’ perceive their leaders’ personal character evidencing those practices and setting an ethical tone that inspires them to do right things.

Likewise, the fewer the number of responses to particular prompts indicates that followers’ perceive the personal character of their leaders not evidencing those practices. These data challenge public administrators to develop those aspects of character. A future ethics audit can then assess whether and how that has been achieved.

Public administrators can build upon the personal ethics audit by conducting an ethics audit of the public service organizations they lead. The data generated will identify the current state of ethicality present in those organizations and provide followers feedback about how they might develop greater ethical competence throughout the organization. A future ethics audit can assess whether and how that has been achieved.

However, the first and most important step for public administrators—leading by doing—is to invite followers to assess how their leaders demonstrate personal integrity.


Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a professor of Public Administration at Villanova University. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence, and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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