Getting Help: How to Find Answers for Your Ethics Questions

When you’re facing an ethical challenge, you’re not alone. Reach out to your colleagues in the association community to get the help you need.

One of the reasons people often ignore ethical questions is that ethics can turn things that we think should be simple into complicated dilemmas. A good example: gifts.

A gift is usually innocent, a gesture of goodwill, professional respect, and friendship. Is it really more complicated than that? In the business world, including associations, it often is.

Depending on the circumstances, a gift could be illegal (such as a gift to your senator or to certain government employees), or it may raise suspicions of unethical conduct (such as a gift from a vendor who is responding to an RFP for your organization). Gifts to association professionals can take many forms; common ones include reduced registration fees, tickets to sporting events, giveaways at conventions, or “fam” trips to pleasant destinations.

The best way to navigate ethical issues is to become comfortable asking the right questions. The answers may vary depending on the circumstances.

Many associations have adopted policies that either prohibit gifts to staff members and volunteers or limit the value of any gifts, often to $50 or less. Others have policies or practices in place to ensure that the receipt of a gift is approved in advance at the appropriate level in the organization.

In the absence of a policy, the most important ethical consideration is whether, in the eyes of your boss, your members, or the public, the gift may affect your judgment and ability to act in the best interests of your association and your members. For example, a free conference registration given to a staff member as thanks for helping another organization may be appropriate. However, a gift basket from a vendor to a manager who is responsible for an RFP that the vendor has bid on probably is not.

Gift-related ethical issues are not limited to gifts from outside parties. Many offices solicit contributions from staff members for charitable causes and for birthdays, weddings, retirements, and other occasions.  Yet, is it really the right thing to solicit money for a birthday gift for the executive director, and should the executive director encourage such gifts? Should staff members feel pressured to contribute to causes they would not otherwise support?

How to Get Help

The best way to navigate such ethical issues is to become comfortable asking the right questions.  The answers may vary depending on the circumstances. The ASAE Standards of Conduct and the many resources available on the ASAE website (search “ethics”) can help guide you through these questions. The final segment in the ASAE ethics video series provides an overview:

The question of gifts is just one example of the ethical dilemmas that association executives face daily.  There often isn’t a simple answer, so what is most helpful to many people is to get the perspective of others who may have faced a similar situation. One way you can do that is through ASAE’s Collaborate network, where you can get different perspectives from other members. If you prefer a more anonymous way to ask for assistance, you can send an email to ethicsquestions@asaecenter.org.  An ASAE staff member will route your question anonymously to the Ethics Committee for comment.

We hope you take advantage of the resources available to you, and we look forward to lively and enlightening discussions.

(illustration by Ernie Smith; icons by Erin Gillaspy and Sergey Krivoy/The Noun Project)

Robert M. Skelton, CAE

By Robert M. Skelton, CAE

Robert M. Skelton, CAE, is chief administrative officer at ASAE. MORE

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