“Unethical, sketchy, and uncomfortable behavior among Herndon officials are some of the main reasons behind the push to strengthen the code. The councilmembers shared stories of unnamed former town officials who publicly berated staff, grabbed a staffer in a sexual manner, and solicited jobs from other elected officials in the performance of their official duties.”
—From “Town of Herndon Grapples with How to Revamp Ethics Code,” an article in Reston Today, describing the classic and unresolvable problem with Ethics Codes.
Herndon, Virginia, isn’t too far from where I live.
The problem the article encompasses is as old as the hills. Simply passing laws, or regulations, or rules prohibiting wrongful conduct doesn’t do anything to make the people subject to these laws, regulations and rules better human beings. It simply tells them that there are specific consequences to their bad conduct. Maybe that will discourage them, and maybe it won’t. After all, they have to be caught first.
The conduct described in the quote is unethical, and anyone with functioning ethics alarms knows its unethical. Abusing subordinates? Sexual assault and harassment? Using official duties to barter for career advancement? If an official knows this conduct and others equally blatant are wrong, then they don’t need a code. If they don’t know they are wrong, no code is going to help them, and individuals that ethically clueless shouldn’t be government officials.
That doesn’t mean that codes of conduct aren’t essential tools of creating an ethical culture in a local government or tree house clubs. They are, but they are just a starting point, putting in place external standards that have to be internalized, which is to say that they are then used to fix the settings on everyone’s ethics alarms in that culture. By themselves, codes do nothing, and they may even cause more misconduct. Unethical people who are also smart love the Compliance Dodge, from the Rationalizations List: Continue reading