In stressful times, you can head off an ethical crisis
Talk through ‘gray areas,’ giving staff a moral compass

A commentary originally published in Current, Feb. 24, 2003
By Patti Dodgen

A manager in ethical hot water can be compared to a frog in a soup pot, says Carter McNamara. If you put a frog in a pot of hot water, it will immediately jump out, McNamara writes in The Complete Guide to Ethics Management: An Ethics Toolkit for Managers. But if you put a frog in a pot of cool water and very gradually increase the heat of the burner, you can boil the frog before it knows what’s up.

Dodgen, dark haired in white blouse red suitThe point here is that most ethical problems are created not by management mischief but by poor decisions made by managers under stress. For public broadcasters struggling to manage rapid change, stress is constant. You can almost feel the water getting warmer.

When the survival of the station is in question, the range of acceptable alternatives can grow at a frightening rate. To avoid making frog soup, we must give significant attention to ethics.

"Management mischief" has been the focus of stories about Enron, Tyco and WorldCom, and it’s not unheard of in public broadcasting, but the vast majority of ethics problems in the field arise where managers must make complex choices in the midst of wide gray areas. McNamara points out the differences between management mischief and "moral mazes."

In these moral mazes, decision-makers must navigate through potential conflicts of interest, avoid misusing resources, and prevent mismanagement of contracts, agreements and grants. When such issues arise on a daily basis—particularly when survival seems to be at stake—good people can take bad actions.

To guide our behavior, we need to create a moral compass for ourselves and for our managers. Freedom to Care, a British whistle-blower’s support group, borrowed from the work of Geoff Hunt in creating such a compass for itself in the OPAL Principles:

Openness: Open management facilitates honesty, transparency, and timely and effective communication in decision-making. It helps managers avoid secretiveness, defensiveness and exclusion.

Performance with Integrity: Decision-makers perform their duties without sacrificing personal, professional or corporate integrity. Rather, their integrity guides their choice of objectives and means.

Accountability: Managers are prepared to explain and justify the organization’s acts to relevant stakeholders when appropriate. The organizations have mechanisms by which they can be held accountable.

Leadership: Executives provide guidance to others through personal example and sound judgment and courage, which commands moral, ethical and professional respect.

Those core values provide invaluable support for the work of Freedom to Care. For public broadcasting organizations, developing a set of principles like those can help them manage ethical dilemmas by avoiding them in the first place. Such values statements must be brought to life by leaders who live by them and teach them inside their organizations.

A core value statement is like an organization’s DNA. It may share components with the values statement of another organization, but the combination will remain unique to that organization.

To make it real, talk it through

Your entire staff should be involved in developing your core values statement, expressing and discussing their own values. Otherwise it will be empty rhetoric. Without discussion, there can be greater differences of opinion among staff members than the manager knows.

If we asked a group of 100 individuals, "Do you behave respectfully to all the employees in your workplace?" 99 of the 100 would say they certainly do. But if we asked the same group if their co-workers universally treat them with respect, 99 would say absolutely not. The difference is in our individual definitions of "respectful" behavior.

The organization where I work, Transformations Consulting Group, brought every member of its team into a facilitated discussion of our values, giving specific language and examples of behavior consistent with those values. The result was this statement:

"Transformations Consulting Group is based on a foundation of trust. Our values of Teamwork, Communication skills, and Growth and development of business grow from that trust in one another.

"Trust is our foundation. Trust can be described behaviorally:

  • Acts with integrity, adhering to the highest standards of conduct and code of values on both a personal and professional level.
  • Demonstrates a long and consistent track record of acting with honesty, principle and integrity.
  • Is honest, fair and straightforward, both explicitly and implicitly, in principles, intentions and actions.
  • Respects the rights of others and the company’s principles and code of ethics."

For TCG’s complete values statement and links to other resources, go to Current Online,

What would your staff do?

Once you have developed your station’s own statement of core values and ethics, it is important for the staff to discuss specific ethical hazards. Doug Wallace, a consultant based in Twin Cities, describes a significant ethical conflict as a situation with (1) significant value conflicts among interested parties, (2) real alternatives that individuals may argue for or against and (3) significant consequences for interested parties.

Here are a couple of examples we have heard in our work:

  • "My g.m. tells me that one of my employees is among a group to be laid off soon, but we are not at liberty to disclose the layoff for several weeks. Meanwhile, I know that my employee is planning to make arrangements to remodel his house. What do I do?"
  • "My station is selling underwriting for a special event we hold annually. Last year an insurance company participated at a significant level. This year we are discussing their participation once again, but the senior managers at the insurance company have changed. We know the insurance company has "deep pockets" and we could probably charge them more than other underwriters and they would agree to pay more than the "going rate." What should we do?"

Encourage your senior staff to discuss potentially difficult ethical situations like these. Use your core values statement as a litmus test for weighing alternative actions. Discuss potential consequences and their pros and cons. Develop consensus around outcomes that would serve the interests of all parties, which you could explain and defend as consistent with your stated values. Arm your staff with not only the values statements but also the experience of working through potential gray areas before these situations arise.

The exercise is worth the trouble. McNamara identifies a number of potential benefits of managing ethics in the workplace:

  • Ethics programs help maintain a moral course in turbulent times. Leaders need a moral compass to help determine what is right and appropriate to the situation. The emphasis on ethics will sensitize staff and managers to consider how they want to act.
  • Ethics management cultivates teamwork and productivity. Discussion of core values and ethics in the workplace builds openness and community. When employees feel their personal values are clearly aligned with the organization’s, they gain motivation and pride.
  • Ethics management supports the personal growth of employees. They can face difficult issues with greater confidence.
  • Ethics programs promote a strong public image. When an organization openly and frequently focuses on ethics, the public senses that it’s worthy of trust and support.
  • Most importantly, it’s the right thing to do.

People have long trusted public radio and public television, both in their local and national incarnations. Their high-quality programs carry meaning, balance and integrity for millions of listeners, viewers and donors.

Ethics management is completely consistent with this mission and this image. It can help stations weather challenges, grow in stature and confidence and lead by example in the nonprofit community. Don’t allow the circumstances of our stressful times to boil that frog.

Patti Dodgen is a managing partner of Transformations Consulting Group, based in Tampa. Before co-founding the firm in 1993, she worked as a senior business analyst at Dun & Bradstreet and as a senior financial manager at Digital Equipment Corp. She works with such clients as PBS, CPB, Gannett and the U.S. Department of Justice. E-mail:

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