From the restaurant table to the agency boardroom, ethical challenges often force us to make tough decisions. Keeping your ethical lens clean is the first step in resolving lifes dilemmas.

Ethical challenges pervade our daily lives. It may be as simple as the restaurant bill that did not include dessert. It may be as complex as contractual conflicts of interest coupled with brutal political battles in a large government agency. The ethical challenge knows no scope. It only knows outcome. Are our choices clear?

When is the last time you faced an ethical dilemma? It may not have been a life or death issue, just something that shook the arrow on your ethical compass. Here are a few recent examples of choices made by those in the public service.

  • Extensive breaches of security were recently discovered, some dating back as far as 2008, at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Hacking by internal staff violated federal security regulations and gave wrongdoers access to files and confidential emails containing contracting information, policy data, and other sensitive information.
  • Though often viewed as among the best and brightest in the armed forces, several crew members of a nuclear submarine were discovered to have been systematically cheating on training exams. The U.S. Navy maintained that this was a rare occurrence, but former officers aboard the vessel indicated the practice is widespread.
  • A U.S. Border Patrol agent is shot dead in Arizona. The gun is allegedly one of thousands sold to Mexican drug traffickers as part of a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives plan to investigate gun smuggling.

Were those involved in these situations acting with malicious intent? Were overzealous employees attempting to gain an edge or cut corners? Were they well-meaning staff trying to carry out policy or right a perceived wrong? Or were simple mistakes made?

Im often amazed by what federal leaders say they consider their most common ethical dilemmas. The initial response to my inquiry generally yields a workplace challenge: a boss took credit for a staffers work, a colleague has a personal relationship with a developer who just won a lucrative contract; or a supervisor insists that a manager assess a subordinate at a given level.

Ethical puzzles are not limited to high-profile issues in large government agencies. They begin and exist on a much smaller scale. Very often ethical puzzles are about reporting. If a Starbucks barista mistakenly gave you an extra $5 in change, is it worth it to return the money if you notice when you get back to the car? Would that $5 quandary be the same if it were, say, $25 of office supplies? How about $250 in football tickets given to you by a contractor? Or $5,000 of tax-free income? Where do you draw the line?

It comes down to having a clear decision-making framework and a clean ethical lens. We begin by recognizing the environment were in, weighing the consequences of our decision, and then going with our gut.

Recognize the Environment

Public managers operate in a fish bowl. Indeed, the public sector, and the federal government more specifically, is under scrutiny at unheard-of levels. Here are a few sobering statistics:

  • A Gallup poll taken in August 2011 suggests citizens views of the federal government are at a record low, with the public sector falling to last among 25 business and industry sectors for the first time. Additionally, an alarming 63 percent of Americans view the federal government negativelywhile only 17 percent of Americans have a favorable view of the fedsthe lowest rating since 2003.
  • A Pew Research Center survey, also released in August, reports that only 11 percent of Americans are basically content with the federal government. Six months before, this contented crowd represented 22 percent of those surveyed.

As our stock falls, so does our moral currency. The most recent Natural Culture Values Survey by the Cultural and Media Institute shows that 74 percent of Americans feel moral values in America are weaker than they were 20 years ago; 48 percent say moral values are much weaker than they were 20 years ago.

Despite these depressing figures, public servants can, and do, take pride in their work. While public managersor the public at largemay not realize the prestige and honor that was part of the civil services of ancient Egypt and Rome, todays public managers perform vital services for our communities. Most times they do so under enormous pressures. Timelines based on political schedules, personnel and funding constraints, media attention, public demands, legislative and judicial influence, and the pull between constitutional values and business values all make up the unique environment of the public manager.

Consider the Consequences of Your Decision

Decision-making models are common in business and management literature, but rarely do we consider the consequences. Many of us fail to analyze all of the potential outcomes of the decision, both long and short term, when considering ethical dilemmas. That examination takes too much time. American University Professor Emeritus Donald G. Zauderer, a longtime member of The Public Managers Board of Editors, suggests several underlying principles that may guide us to a well-informed decision and help us carefully consider the consequences.

  • Immanuel Kants Means/Ends Rule: A person is not to be used as a means to another persons end.
  • Fairness (Golden Rule): Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
  • Fairness (Platinum Rule): Treat others as they wish to be treated.
  • Kants Categorical Imperative: Only perform those acts which you would allow to become universal standards.
  • Disclosure Rule: aka The Washington Post Rule. Would you be okay with this decision on the front page above the fold?
  • Professional Ethics Rule: Is this standard behavior for your peers? (This is the least restrictive of the rules listed and thus the most likely to be abused.)
  • Utilitarian Rule: The greatest good is whatever brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people.

Can all these rules apply to all situations? No. The utilitarian rule may come into conflict with other rules since, as a result of its application, some individuals or groups may suffer. Likewise the standard of behavior for a given profession may not mesh well with universal standards of behavior. The task of the public manager is to examine the situation carefully and apply the necessary and meaningful rules that will guide them to a sound decision.

Go With Your Gut

Bestselling business authors and statistics professors make a lot of money arguing vehemently for analytical approaches to managing human behavior. The idea of irrational human beings being funneled into rational models always makes me chuckle. When all is said and done, look at the data, assess their value, and then go with your gut.

According to Gerd Gigerenzer, author of the 2007 book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious, a gut feeling is a judgment that comes quickly into a persons consciousness. He notes that while the individual may not know why he has the feeling, the feeling is strong enough to make an individual act on it. It is not a calculation. Decisions are reached using cues in the environment and unconscious mental processes that take into account values, emotions, and countless other variables. According to Gigerenzer, these organic processes only assess the most useful information instead of all of the potential variables in a decision, and the result is a more efficient and authentic decision.

Gigerenzers research was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller, Blink. Gladwell describes what scientists term the adaptive unconscious, which allows our brains to operate as a giant computer. Blink asserts that human beings could not have survived without having the innate ability to make quick and accurate judgments based on very little information.

This approach is not uncommon. Law enforcement officers are credited with an instinct that someone is hiding something or that something is amiss. Likewise, researchers follow hunches that lead them to ground-breaking discoveries.

The Public Manager Challenge

Public sector leaders operate in a spotlight and make an impact unlike leaders in any other industry. The consequences of their decisions may affect the homeless, public safety, or national defense.

Stakeholders they may never meet wield influence of varying degrees. As James Madison wrote in Federalist Paper No. 51, If men were angels, no government would be necessary.

Public managers must make the best decisions possible and aspire to be role models for integrity. They are the best representatives we have of our constitutional values.

Only by continually examining our environment, weighing potential consequences, and embracing the decision we feel is best, will we secure the public trust and do so in the most ethical way.