No good deed goes unpunished

Doing the right thing when confronted with ethical dilemmas

John Lisenko
Retired Public Works Director
City of Foster City, California

In November 2007, the APWA Leadership and Management Committee concluded its series of articles on public works leadership and management issues entitled "The Baker's Potluck." This was the third series of articles (the first being "The Baker's Dozen," the second being "The Baker's Menu") that discuss various leadership and management topics of interest to APWA members. The committee's new series is entitled "Recipes for Success" and touches on a variety of leadership and management topics. Along with each article is an actual recipe for a favorite public works dish submitted by a member. Each recipe is a favorite from the members in their department. Give them a try.

Good people do not need laws to tell them to act responsibly, while bad people will find a way around the laws. - Plato

When I do good, I feel good; when I do bad, I feel bad. That's my religion. - Abraham Lincoln

When the topic of ethics is mentioned in the media, it is usually in connection with someone getting caught breaking a law. Recent examples include use of performance-enhancing drugs by athletes, insider trading by corporate executives and various moral lapses by prominent politicians. To categorize these as ethical issues is somewhat misleading, since ethics isn't so much about what we have to do (obey the law!) but more about what we ought to do when presented with alternative courses of action, all of which may be legal, but have varying consequences to ourselves and to others.

As a guideline for what we ought to do, we may refer to a set of values that are generally accepted in our society, such as courage, compassion, tolerance, honesty, loyalty, trustworthiness, fairness, responsibility, civility, professionalism and respect.

We may also rely on the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Applying these values to a given set of circumstances can help us decide what we ought to do, but finding that answer can be challenging when several different values are in conflict, and we need to choose between them.

Circumstances that present us with several possible outcomes that we must choose from based on our system of values are called ethical dilemmas. As public works practitioners we encounter ethical dilemmas on a daily basis. Here are some examples:

Loyalty. Within our organization, one might ask "Loyalty to whom?" Faced with the decision whether or not to report a rule infraction that we witness, our loyalty to our fellow employees may come into conflict with our loyalty to our supervisor. If our supervisor is more concerned with meeting the ends and not the means, and the supervisor's methods of achieving organizational goals involve circumventing rules and procedures, then our loyalty to our supervisor may conflict with organizational loyalty. Our loyalty to our organization may be in conflict with our loyalty to the public if the organization's policies are not consistent with our view of what's right (the "Whistleblower's dilemma"). The risk we take in doing the right thing in these situations can result in consequences to us that range from loss of friendship to loss of employment.

Outside our organization, when we interact with other public agencies on a regional basis, we may face the dilemma of staying loyal to the interests and policies of our agency while recognizing that some of those may be in conflict with the greater good of the region. If you are on a regional committee or board, one way to resolve this dilemma is to advocate for your local interest, but vote on the basis of what's best for the region.

How many people have to get killed before you do something???? - the Traffic Engineer's dilemma. How do you respond to citizens' concerns about safety that result in requests for (stop sign, speed bump, speed limits, signal, traffic name it) and do so in a professional manner, balancing a variety of interests? Add the political pressure from councils and commissions that are trying to satisfy a vocal minority, and the job becomes more complex, adding a personal dimension to the decision-making process. Often a traffic engineer must take a stand that represents sound engineering principles and safety for the majority of the traveling public without having the tangible support of that majority. It's a stand that requires a certain degree of personal courage balanced with compassion for the emotional stake of the vocal minority. The old adage "It takes two fatalities, one injury and three dead cats to warrant a signal..." isn't the answer, but neither is the installation of unwarranted traffic control devices that ultimately defeat the purpose they are intended for by breeding contempt for the law.

Doing unto others: customer service and the use of public funds. Lending a helping hand to a citizen in the course of our job is part of customer service. How far you extend that hand is not always clearly defined. We have to strike a balance between individual service (which can be highly time-consuming) and service to the public in general, which tends to represent a more efficient use of public resources. Requests for individual service are usually accompanied by emotional appeals to our compassion and desire to apply the Golden Rule, while our primary mandate to do proactive asset management is predicated on rational and logical decisions that are oriented to long-term goals and objectives, as opposed to more immediate gratification. Agencies with limited resources (and in today's environment, that's most public agencies) that fail to address this dilemma end up devoting inordinate time to "reactive" maintenance in response to individual needs and not enough time to systematic and proactive asset preservation.

Environmental ethics...and the use of public funds. Environmental ethics is a complex subject, that, in addition to other values, asks us to consider man's place in the universe and how that fits within the balance of nature. From a public works perspective, the ethical dilemma is precipitated by the fact that environmental impacts are associated with most, if not all, public works projects and activities (which are primarily for man's benefit). Because funds are limited, only so much can be spent on environmental mitigation before an activity or a project is rendered unfeasible. At times, this makes public works professionals appear to be insensitive to the environment while trying to fulfill their fiduciary and project management responsibility. Unfortunately, the general public is seldom aware of, or is asked to resolve this dilemma involving the use of their tax dollars. That leaves it up to what is often an acrimonious "environmental process" which often places public works managers in the unenviable position of devil's advocate, demanding of them a high degree of professionalism, patience, courage and integrity.

Who's your buddy? Public contracts, public funds and the perception of misuse. Much of what we do in public works is predicated on developing good working relationships with our vendors—consultants, contractors, sales people, and the like. Good relationships achieve a number of desired outcomes, including timely conflict resolution, clear and open communication and, most importantly, efficient use of public funds. Knowing how to maintain objectivity and be fiscally responsible, while at the same time trying to maintain good personal relationships with your contractual partners, is not always an easy task and can involve resolving ethical conflicts between values such as friendship, fairness, responsibility and loyalty. While we may believe that our relationships are on sound ethical grounds, in the public sector perception is as important if not more so than reality. If the same vendor seems to be getting the work over and over again, even if there is a seemingly objective procurement process, then it is highly likely that someone will think there is something fishy going on. At that point, you are guilty until proven innocent, a no-win position to be in. For this reason, and also because familiarity can breed contempt, it is a good idea to periodically reevaluate long-term contractual relationships.

Ethics is doing the right thing when no one is looking. While many of our actions receive public review and scrutiny, a goodly portion of our daily activities are monitored by no one but us. Most public works activities are geared to long-term benefits, and the consequences associated with whether we do the right thing or not may not surface for a long time. Since public works is a mostly monopolistic activity, not even the market can determine whether we've done a good job or not—we're the only game in town! This puts an added burden and responsibility on the public works professional to set both the standard for performance and also be the judge of it.

Ethics codes and courses, mission statements rules, and regulations. Many public agencies and professional organizations have codified ethical standards, sometimes as a formal "Code of Ethics," sometimes embedded in a Mission Statement or in a Statement of Professional Conduct. There are also numerous ethics courses that are offered (mandatory in California for all elected and appointed officials). For the person whose upbringing has included a grounding in basic morals and values, these codes and standards are a confirmation of those values, but not very helpful in resolving ethical dilemmas that require us to select from options that all appear to be consistent with the basic value system.

Ethics courses tend to emphasize how to avoid doing the wrong thing rather than how to select the right course of action from several acceptable alternatives. Learning what constitutes conflict of interest and what type of gifts should be reported does not provide us with guidance on how to deal with the more subtle pressures and behaviors that may influence our decisions on important matters such as selecting consultants or dealing with contractors.

Organizational culture. A more important influence than mission statements or ethics codes on how employees will resolve ethical dilemmas is organizational culture. Organizations that profess their virtues through ethics codes and mission statements but do not "walk the talk" send mixed messages to their employees. Whom the organization perceives as "the Enemy" will often determine staff attitudes and how the organization interacts with its external environment much more than any expressed intent to give good customer service. The "Enemy" may be "those greedy developers" or "those outsiders—the commuters who irresponsibly drive through our town," or it may even be the public—"those ungrateful whiners who want the service but don't want to pay for it." These blanket generalizations, sometimes uttered out of a legitimate feeling of frustration, influence attitudes and beliefs and translate into actions by employees who, in the course of doing their job, are trying to do their best to resolve ethical dilemmas under the pressure of time and limited resources.

Neither customer service training, team building or process "reengineering" can alter an organizational culture until all levels of the organization admit to and are willing to openly confront the biases and prejudices that are embedded within.

So what can we do?
First, we need to recognize that the situation is an ethical dilemma. This recognition is usually characterized by an uneasiness in the pit of our stomach, a vague feeling of discomfort or anxiety, or perhaps even annoyance and anger. These feelings are like the yellow light at the intersection. They are a warning to us that the decisions that follow need to be made carefully, and not based solely on our emotional response to the situation.

Next we need to identify what category the dilemma falls in:

  • Is it a "personal cost" ethical dilemma wherein your job, reputation, friendship, etc. may be on the line? Or, is it a:

  • Right vs. Right dilemma, where one or more positive values are in conflict?

Following is a checklist that can be used to help arrive at an outcome that will leave you feeling good about yourself:

  • See which values apply to your dilemma.

  • Don't lose sight of the facts.

  • Recognize that in the public sector perception can be as or sometimes more important than reality. Visualize the impact of seeing your decision on the front page of next day's paper, and how comfortable you will be in defending it.

  • Sort out the options and look for the option that has the greatest potential for overall benefit with the least harm. Visualize explaining to a child why you did what you did.

  • Step "outside yourself" and try to analyze the situation dispassionately. One way to do this is to talk to someone who doesn't have the same personal stake in the outcome that you do. Seek out the advice of "ethical barometers"—people in your organization who are respected because they "walk the talk."

  • If you're a "can do" energetic go-getter, prone to focus more on ends rather than means, pay attention to those who ask seemingly "dumb" questions and work at a more deliberate pace.

  • Listen to your perennial critics and council "Gadflies." Although they may be annoying, irritating and often irrational, like the "Village Idiot" of olden days, these folks sometimes have an uncanny knack for piercing through the veneer of good intentions and rationalization and identifying the hypocrisy inherent in some organizational cultures.

  • It helps to remember that it is the public's money we are dealing with, while at the same time treating it as if it were our own hard-earned dollars, and not parting with it too readily in the interest of resolving disputes, satisfying individual constituent demands or otherwise easing the burden of having to prioritize and make difficult decisions and choices.

It has often occurred to me that how one reacts to a traffic signal provides a good model for defining ethical behavior. When we approach a signalized intersection, it is clear to most of us that the red light means stop, a green light means go. If we go through a red light we knowingly break the law and risk suffering the consequences if we get caught. A green light means we have unrestricted permission to go (unless there's a fire truck heading our way!). Approaching a yellow light, however, we have several options—slow down, speed up, or continue at the same speed. While many will automatically slow down (these are the truly ethical people who invite road rage and rear-end collisions), a fair number of us will decide what to do based on the situation. Our choice will be influenced by our personality, our frame of mind at the time, our preoccupation with where we are going, how late we are, etc. Only by stepping outside of ourselves can we appreciate what the yellow light is really there for—not to be interpreted in terms of our personal needs and wants, but in terms of our concern for the safety of others. It is there to alert us that we need to proceed with caution, because our actions could have serious consequences not just to us, but to other users of the roadway. Recognition of this fact puts us on the path to behaving ethically.

The reward for doing the right thing is not always immediate, nor does it always come to us from the external environment. On the contrary, behaving ethically can have negative consequences, such as loss of friendships, public criticism, negative impacts to certain members of the public and/or the environment, and can lead to a lot of personal agonizing over the alternatives we discarded when we picked the one we thought best. Sometimes doing nothing seems like the safest course. However, doing nothing is seldom an acceptable alternative, and does not absolve us of responsibility for the consequences of our inaction. If we want to make a difference and to contribute in a meaningful way to our profession, our families and our community, we have to wrestle with the ethical dilemmas that confront us daily, and make the best choice we can from those that are available.

"The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil." - Hannah Arendt

John Lisenko is a retired Public Works Director with the City of Foster City, California. He occasionally consults and is also one of the organizers and instructors of the APWA Northern California Chapter's Public Works Institute. He can be reached at


1 medium to large onion coarsely chopped
1 green onion (scallion) sliced
1 green pepper diced
1 pound cube steak cut in 1/2 inch cubes
1 can (15 oz) kidney beans undrained
1 can (28 oz) diced tomatoes
1 can (6 oz) tomato paste (can be flavored)
1 bag of shredded cheddar cheese
1 tsp chili powder
1 bag of Four Cheese or Nacho Doritos
1 tsp crushed red pepper
1 tsp black pepper
Assorted hot sauces
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
3 tsp sugar

Place ingredients in crock pot in listed order and cook on low for 3 to 5 hours (depending upon crock pot or until the savory aroma overcomes you and you have to have it now). Stir occasionally until done.

Don Jacobovitz, P.E.
Public Works Director
Putnam County, FL