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A Tripodal Approach to Supporting Values-Based Decision-making—Third Leg: Action

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

By JoAnne Speers
December 12, 2022

This column is the final in a series that explores how both in-service ethics educators and organizational leaders can support employees in thinking about ethics. This final column explores strategies for speaking up on ethical issues.

Related Reading/Previous Columns: Core Values, Awareness and Analysis.

The Expectation

A favorite (and now mostly retired) city manager says the following about dealing with tricky ethical situations in public service. “Be prepared to have good answers to these questions: What did you know, when did you know it and what did you do about it?” His advice underscores the reality that both the public and the profession expects us to act if something questionable is occurring.

Section 7d ASPA Code makes this expectation explicit, directing public administrators to try to correct situations involving wrongdoing and, if that is not possible, report them internally and externally. Other code sections emphasize speaking up even when the message may not be welcome or popular—a reflection of the reality that organizational and other pressures can be powerful influences on what employees prioritize.

The Options

The textbook advice is that there are three options in situations involving values conflicts. Those are: 1) exit (leaving the organization), 2) voice (speaking up) or 3) disloyalty. These are typically displayed as a Venn diagram because of the overlapping nature of these options.

This column focuses on strategies in-service ethics educators can share related to voice. (Encouraging voice is also a preferable leadership strategy for reasons Jacobs explains in his column on fostering a speak up organizational culture.)

Being Candid About the Courage It Takes to Use Voice

Exercising voice takes courage. As Detert notes, courage involves facing risk—to relationships and in some cases one’s job (hence the overlapping relationship between voice and exit). He describes the task as being “competently courageous.” The goal is to raise concerns in a way that maximizes the odds of positive impact while minimizing the chance of personal consequences.

Maximizing the Odds of Positive Impact/Minimizing Risk

How can in-service ethics educators and others support learners in being effective in voicing concerns?  Two resources in this area are Detert’s book on strategies for being competently courageous and Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values.

Both authors acknowledge that even the most effective approach may not be successful. Each individual needs to consider both the likely benefits as well as the costs (and Detert describes some useful long-term strategies for reducing costs). There may be situations where the likely costs outweigh the benefits.

If one decides to try voice, both authors advise trying to see the situation from others’ perspectives. Try to understand your audience’s values, beliefs and preferences. Consider what people are trying to accomplish (the goal may be worthy, even if the proposed means may be questionable). The task is to frame your communication and use of information in a way your listener will find compelling. Instead of focusing on problems, try to propose alternative paths forward.

Asking questions (“help me understand . . . “) can reduce the likelihood of a defensive reaction. The response will also signal whether the person is open to considering alternative perspectives.

Framing concerns in terms of core values can also be effective. One of the powers of the core values concept is universality. This also is where the shared self-perception of ethicality can be helpful. As Gentile and some successful organizations put it, assume positive intent.

Talk with others. Detert notes that, even if others are unwilling to participate in speaking up, you will learn if they share your concern. You may also learn what approaches may have been successful in the past, and what have not.

Gentile offers two additional strategies for people who want to be effective in raising values issues in the workplace:

  • Anticipate the rationalizations your audience is likely to offer; and
  • Rehearse what you will say.

She also notes there is no one-size-fits-all formula for success. Each individual has to determine the approach that works best given what is most comfortable and natural for them.

Teaching Resources and Approaches

This area is tailor-made for role playing exercises, which can be another dimension of using case studies. In terms of shareable resources, this link summarizes some of Detert’s and Gentile’s ideas. The Ethics Unwrapped website offers a number of videos in which Gentile explains her “Giving Voice to Values” concepts.

The Larger Picture

Time-permitting, it can be helpful if public servants are clear on the “why” of their work. Gentile calls this “professional purpose.”  As Vinzant notes, it can be helpful to clarify the lines one will not cross before a values conflict arises.

This can be as simple as asking students to share which one or two of the five core values are most important to them in their public service (and why).


This series of columns has shared concepts that in-service ethics educators and organizational leaders can use to support public servants in values-based decision-making. These concepts may also be helpful in programs that integrate public service ethics concepts across a public administration or public policy curriculum.

Author: JoAnne Speers, MPP and JD, trains and consults on public service ethics as principal of S2 Ethics Strategies. She previously served as chief executive of the Institute for Local Government, where she developed and directed its ethics program. JoAnne has also taught ethics as an adjunct professor. Her email is jspeers@strategies4ethics.

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