Ethics for Bureacracies—On An Index Card

Ethicist Bob Stone has proposed a useful and perceptive solution to the perplexing problem of lax ethics in government bureaucracies. Calling on them to adopt “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,” Stone declares that too often “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.”

As a solution, Bob proposes a statement of ethical principles, so brief that it would easily fit on an index card:

I will:

  • Do my best at work
  • Avoid conflict of interest
  • Speak truth to power
  • Be a good citizen
  • Shun any private gain from my employment
  • Act impartially
  • Treat others the way I would like to be treated
  • Report waste, fraud, and corruption

When in doubt, my test is can I explain my actions to my mother or to my child.

Stone recommends that leaders and managers customize this to their own organizations, print it, distribute it, and then–and this is the most important part—regularly use events and decisions to discuss ethical lessons and principles with the staff, using the Statement of Principles as the starting point.

You can read his entire essay here. I recommend it. Bob has a long and distinguished background in that Mother of All Bureaucracies, the Pentagon. He knows what he’s talking about.

One thought on “Ethics for Bureacracies—On An Index Card

  1. Thanks, Jack, for your generosity. I have to add that bureaucracies aren’t just in Government. It can strangle any organization: business, school, law firm, team, anywhere there are more than four people organized toward a common end.

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