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‘How would this look in the newspaper?’

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in Leaders & Managers,Leadership Skills

by Mike Clark-Madison

So here's the latest flap from City Hall in the city where I live. Municipal topsiders gave a contract to a woman who recently retired after many years as a city employee. The contract amount isn't unreasonable, and nobody questions her ability to perform. (They question the wisdom of the project itself, but it's not a performance issue.)

Only problem is, this woman is married to the city's CFO. When she was an actual employee, this wasn't a problem, because she didn't report to her husband. But city purchasing policies strictly prohibit the spouses, partners and close relations of any city executive from getting city contracts. Headlines ensue.

What makes this story interesting for my purposes here is that, when the newspaper came calling, the city's "integrity officer"--the guy in charge of enforcing the ethics policies--had no idea Mrs. CFO had a city contract. He was "shocked" to learn this. (A PR tip for you: If the newspaper comes calling, don't ever be "shocked" by some irregularity. People will instantly think of Claude Rains in Casablanca.)

Now, it's not like Mr. Integrity doesn't know Mr. and Mrs. CFO--they've all worked together for years, and Mrs. CFO's contract work is taking place, literally, just below his office. He just never put two and two together, and nobody ever thought about how the facts of the situation would look on the front page of the newspaper.

When you talk or think about ethics on your job, it's easy to fall into a similar trap. The fact that we know people well, and that we know they're not crooked or incompetent, can blind us to how situations are going to be perceived by others, particularly by our employees. That blindness doesn't just leave us open to ethical lapses when our judgment proves faulty. It also corrodes our credibility with the people who depend on it the most.


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