It’s Legal. You’re Honest. But Are You Ethical?

Abiding by the law and being honest are two core principles of ethical conduct. But being a truly ethical professional demands more.

“How should an individual decision maker, confronted with an ethical dilemma, reach a decision that is competitively, organizationally, economically, and ethically sound?”

That question, posed by Thomas R. Piper, professor emeritus at the Harvard Business School in the book Can Ethics Be Taught?, has informed my thinking, actions, and ethics training since I first read it years ago.

It’s not an easy question to answer, and often, people faced with an ethical dilemma will attempt to resolve it by defaulting to two principles that are related to ethics but are not at all the whole picture: legality and honesty. They are indeed a starting point and are included among the six core ethical standards in the ASAE Standards of Conduct:

  • Respect and uphold public laws that govern one’s work.
  • Be honest in conducting the member’s business.

This segment of the ASAE ethics video series explores both of these principles:

If it’s legal, is it ethical?

I am a professional meeting planner and consultant, and the biggest news in my industry segment over the past several years has been the close, ongoing scrutiny of corporate and government meetings. (I’m unsure how, so far, association meetings have escaped the view of Congress and the media. I imagine we’ll be next!)

Remember the “AIG effect,” in which corporations shied away from pricey venues for a while after the insurance giant spent nearly half a million dollars on a conference at a luxury resort—shortly after receiving a massive taxpayer-funded bailout? The company was roundly criticized by Congress and the media.

And then came Muffingate, the famous flap over what someone thought were $16 muffins allegedly served at a Justice Department conference. Those reports were not quite accurate; the concerns about excessive conference spending, however, were real enough to make the claim believable to congressional investigators and the media, putting a spotlight on meetings. More recent inspector general reports detailing what some considered excessive and inappropriate spending on General Services Administration and Internal Revenue Service events have renewed the scrutiny over the past year and a half.

Many of the meetings that have been questioned were within legal bounds, and association meeting planners reading the IG report on the IRS meeting would likely say that the suite upgrades and other perks that attendees and planners enjoyed at that event were accepted standard industry practices.

If these were your meetings, or if you were the business partner providing these services and perks, how would you defend what you had done, legally? And if the actions are legal, are they still within ethical bounds—for you? Your association? Your company? Do they stand up to the smell test? Would your members and other stakeholders determine that what you—an association CEO, meeting professional , or contractor—received (suite upgrade, limousine transportation to and from the airport, amenities such as alcohol, fruit, candy, extra suite cleaning, and so on) were appropriate?

Would these actions be considered ethical if—regardless of whether or not they were legal—they appeared on the front page of The Washington Post?

As the late ASAE President and CEO Bill Taylor asked years ago, would these actions be considered ethical if—regardless of whether or not they were legal—they appeared on the front page of The Washington Post?

If I am honest, am I ethical?

Like legality, honesty is not the same thing as ethics.

In ethics work I conduct, two questions I always use to start the thinking and conversation are “What does it mean to you to be ethical?” and “What guides you ethically?”

The responses never vary, regardless of the demographics or profession of the people answering. To “What does it mean to be ethical?” responses include:

  • “Do unto others”/”The Golden Rule”
  • Treat people fairly.
  • Be open and honest.
  • Be transparent.

Responses to “What guides you ethically?” include:

  • My upbringing (or house of worship or religion or parents or teachers)
  • My employer’s code of conduct
  • Perception
  • Intent
  • My industry’s code of conduct
  • “Knowing to do the right thing”

When I hear the words “transparent” and “honest,” I chuckle, often saying that Bonnie and Clyde were transparent and honest in the robberies and murders they committed. Of course their conduct was neither legal nor ethical, but I wonder if, to them, it was—given that they were clear and transparent about their intent. What if they had been your parents? Or, as happened in my childhood home—and happens often in association work—what if you are told to do one thing but another is modeled? Then what do you use as your guideline?

If I say I’m going to do something wrong, does that make me honest and transparent? It does, doesn’t it? Does my honesty about my intentions make my actions ethical?

The high-profile controversies about corporate and government meetings, as well as many of our own experiences in the association community, reveal countless ways that our ethics can be compromised. For example:

  • taking fam (familiarization) trips with no intention of taking business to the destination
  • seeking—or, in the case of industry partners or vendors, offering—favors (upgrades, perks, discounts for personal use)
  • claiming credentials that haven’t been earned or renewed
  • giving and accepting gifts or prizes at tradeshows or other events
  • skipping educational sessions at a meeting you’re attending for which your employer has provided time and financial support  

Those are just a few examples among hundreds. The challenges we face are many.

So how do we, as individuals and organizations, model ethical behavior? If we believe something may not be ethical, will we gather information and “blow the whistle”? Are we working within our organizations and profession to ensure that policies are created and practices modeled that will foster an ethical environment?

There are no easy answers in determining what conduct is ethical. Regular, thoughtful discussions can help us develop or revise policy, model behavior, and determine our actions.

(illustration by Ernie Smith; icon by Erin Gillaspy/The Noun Project)

Joan Eisenstodt

By Joan Eisenstodt

Joan Eisenstodt is chief strategist with Eisenstodt Associates LLC in Washington, DC. MORE

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