The third in the Indiana University Bloomington Future of Professional Ethics Workshop Series took place on January 29th, 2016, hosted by the School of Public and Environmental Affairs.
Keynote speaker Trish Tchume explored the question, “How do you walk through the world of work with integrity?” She opened by sharing a conversation she had with a friend about the stress of ethical concerns on the job. Allow me to paraphrase the striking conversation she reported: “You know how you have this sense of a fence in the distance between you and behaving unethically. And most people, they get more and more cautious as they approach that fence. But certain co-workers just go running at it full tilt. They might always stop short, but you hate to work with them because you feel like you’re being dragged along in their mad dash toward the boundaries of what’s right.”
Tchume went on to outline some great ways to make this metaphor more specific and practical:
What makes up the ethical fence? For the nonprofit sector, it is ultimately the IRS tax code and the definition of a nonprofit as an organization that acts “for the benefit of the general public…without a profit motive.”
What’s testing the ethical fence? Tchume cited several things that shape the environment new grads will go into. One is a characteristic of the workforce: widespread sector-agnosticism, meaning many graduates are willing to consider working in nonprofit, for-profit, or government sectors, they are more focused on results than dedicated to a specific way of getting them. However, these sectors all have different legal and ethical fences. They also expose young professionals to vastly different potential payscales and raise the question of how much – or how little – compensation professionals will expect. Finally, the traditional nonprofit worker finds herself in a competitive funding environment that can pit organizations against each other on the one hand, and on the other hand part of a general social trend toward efficiencies of scale and a focus on metrics, which push all organizations to define success in more business-like terms. Tchume pointed to the recent controversy over the Wounded Warrior project as a case study in some of the tensions involved in scaling organizations up.
Finally, Tchume urged listeners to ask “What slows me down as I run screeching toward the fence?” She advocated for the importance of creating reflective time and space to work this deeply. She shared a graphic(1) originally published by Robert Nash that illustrates the several levels of reflection: listening to your own feelings and intuitions to make sure your job is staying in alignment with your personal brand of ethics, considering the ethical culture of your organization and the specific duties of your role, expanding that reflection to the context of the community your organization works in, and finally thinking most broadly about the story you want your life, your career to tell. During Q&A, she suggested that this multi-level can be a way to grapple with issues like staff investment and retention – by seeing yourself and your colleagues as part of a story that includes but also transcends your current organization.
Panelists Jill Long Thompson and Beth Gazely seconded the keynote’s focus on the vital importance of regular reflection, emphasizing that although most people in government and nonprofits want to do good, it’s a mistake to think that ethics just comes naturally – rather, like building muscles, it takes practice. They agreed that reflective space and conversation is vital to build emotional intelligence, develop those ethical muscles, and to contribute to workplace culture. In concert, the speakers made a compelling case that building space for ethical reflection is imperative for professionals, as individuals, as colleagues, as managers, as friends, and as mentors.
This imperative is all the more urgent in light of survey results Tchume shared early in her talk from www.ethics.org: “58% of nonprofit employees surveyed report a strong or strong-leaning ethics culture in their workplace; 52% in business; and 50% in government.” These numbers drive home the point that young professionals can’t expect the right decisions to always be obvious.