Public Ethics Decline Decried

Town employees at ethics seminar hear daunting challenge


Your kid's sick -- needs an operation.

Would you embezzle $100,000 to save her?


How about your spouse?

If you're like 97 percent of people, you'd definitely rob your employer blind to save your baby.

Not so much for your wife.

But then, if you're like most people -- it's time to rethink your tattered ethical code, Arizona State University Professor Marianne Jennings told the Payson town staff and council at a seminar designed to boost ethical awareness at Town Hall.

Jennings offered a sobering overview of America's ethical state, with a hailstorm of headlines about corruption drumming on the tin roof of a public in which 60 percent of high school students, 75 percent of college students and 50 percent of graduate students admit they've cheated on an exam in the past year.

Moreover, 74 percent of employees say they've seen someone at work do something unethical or illegal -- but most say they would never report such acts to supervisors. Another recent study of resumes found that half contained false information, usually something big like a college degree, previous employment or a job title.

And yet, the tests that show three-quarters of students cheat also found that 92 percent are satisfied with their own ethics.

"We all think we are the most ethical person in the room, but the odds are you've slipped a little -- and don't even know you've slipped," said Jennings.

Jennings offered a discouraging litany of government corruption and ethical decline, while calling on the 30 town officials attending to become ethical role models. The $3,500, two-hour lecture by the nationally renowned expert on business ethics was recorded, so that the roughly 180 town employees can all watch it as part of an annual ethics education program.

The key question remains "what makes good and smart people at great cities, towns, organizations and agencies do really ethically dumb things?" she said.

The answer: Rationaliza-tions, poor role models, organizational values and a tendency to overestimate our ability to keep secrets. Combined, these things prompt people to wriggle down the slippery slope of small lies and cut corners.

She recalled one incident involving her son, who finished a vital three-hour school test in two hours.

"How many pages did you write?" she asked, worried he hadn't done enough.

"Five," he said.

"How many did the other students write?" she asked.

He looked at her funny. "How would I know, mom? The teacher said not to look at anyone else's test."

"You see -- I had slipped. The ethics professor had slipped without even knowing it."

Most of the ethical lapses Jennings recounted crossed that "bright line" in far more damaging ways -- usually in a breath-taking flurry of hypocrisy and denial. Examples include:

  • Enron adopted one of the nation's most-admired, hard-core corporate ethics policies -- shortly before stock scams, market manipulations and fraud led to the collapse of the company amidst fraud charges.
  • California Congressman Duke Cunningham, jailed for accepting payments that totaled some $2.4 million for steering federal contracts to certain businesses, initially observed, "I should have stopped at $1 million."
  • When a scandal broke out in Tucson because many members of the fire department left their shifts early and had friends punch their time cards, a union spokesman observed, "These people are just very good at their work. I don't see why they can't go home."

Jennings also recounted a bizarre incident that took place when she gave a seminar at a high school. When she described the serious consequences of cheating in her class at ASU, the students booed her. When she talked about the penalties in her family for lying, they booed so loudly that school officials had to remove kids from the room.

Afterward, the principal explained "they're not bad kids. They only cheat because they're under pressure."

That urge to excuse unethical behavior is the heart of the problem and the cause of a serious ethical decline in society, she said. "The response of those kids was -- we're not the problem, you're the problem. The world has changed."

And yet, she said, employers still say honesty and integrity are more valuable qualities than competence. Moreover, the nations with the most virulent reputation for corruption mostly have crumbling, ineffective economies -- partly because society can't function without trust in government.

She recalled one incident involving a relative who applied for a government job that required background checks and interviews. The interviewer posed this question: After buying $130 in groceries, you get home and discover a pack of gum you didn't pay for was put into the bag by mistake. What do you do?

He said he wouldn't take it back and so the interviewers rejected his application.

The boy was outraged.

Later, Jennings called the interviewer, who explained he just wanted the boy to acknowledge that the gum didn't belong to him.

"Simple question: Whose gum is it?" said Jennings. "The store's. The rest is just justification and rationalization."

The key lies in applying to every situation the moral rule that underlies almost every religion. As Plato put it: "May I do to others as I would that they should do unto me."

Jennings challenged town officials to first act as though every e-mail, piece of paper and discussion will come out. Second, to always act as though they were the citizen affected.

As to the ethical choice between embezzlement and the life of a child -- she counseled her listeners not to fall into the tiger trap of "either/or."

Find that third alternative that honors both values -- instead of forcing a choice.

Then go out and be "one of the everyday heroes," who will return that pack of gum as the next generation watches and takes note.

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