We must assume that when Thomas Jefferson wrote this statement, he meant any organization brought together by humans:
"In every government on earth is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate and improve."
--Thomas Jefferson: Notes on Virginia, 1782.
And five years later, James Madison, another Founding Father of the United States, warned in his Federalist paper Number 10, 1787:
“The smaller the society, the fewer probably will be the distinct parties and interests composing it; the fewer the distinct parties and interests, the more frequently will a majority be found of the same party; and the smaller the number of individuals composing a majority, and the smaller the compass within which they are placed, the more easily will they concert and execute their plans of oppression.”
These may be heavy warnings, but moving into an ethical culture will actually lift a great burden from your organization. Once you and your fellow leaders commit to relentlessly upholding a culture of ethics, you will find that energy-draining tensions will ease and all of your efforts will once again focus on the purpose of your organization.
One Street leaders and supporters know firsthand the value of ethical leadership that sets respect and the dignity of others as primary. We have also all witnessed the costs of wickedness and oppression. This is why we take ethics so seriously. And because each of us knows the importance of getting it right, we have made ethics guidance a priority for increasing bicycling by uplifting organizations to a level of kindness and caring for others.
This page will regularly evolve as we discuss and learn the nature of ethics for One Street, to help us reach our goals as well as become a model for others. In fact, this page will never be finished because we know too well that ethics cannot be captured in words. It is the process of discussing and striving for ethics in your own organization that will cause an ethical culture to override the wickedness Jefferson warned will always haunt us. If this subject is near and dear to you, please contact us to take part in this ongoing ethics discussion.
WHAT IS/ARE ETHICS?
Most definitions of ethics seem to lump this term into conveniently distant categories that only create more questions:
- The science or study of morals (So what are morals? And is this just for scientists?)
- Standards that govern the conduct of a person, especially a member of a profession (My profession? If so, where are these standards?)
- A set of principles of right conduct (What’s right conduct and where do I find this set?)
- The ability to distinguish between right and wrong (How do I know if I have this ability?)
None of these definitions help in the least when a leader of an organization feels they are facing an ethical challenge. At One Street we answer many calls and emails from leaders with ethical concerns. We start every response with this all important question:
How is your action going to affect others?
From our experience, this question guides every ethical concern towards an ethical solution because in the end, ethics is always about helping rather than harming others.
CODES OF ETHICS
We are all tempted to try to capture ethics in a short list of words. Codes of ethics are certainly a good tool to include in your organization’s toolbox of guiding documents. But a quick search of the web for ethics will show that no two codes of ethics match. Some, especially for for-profit corporations, focus entirely on financial management leaving out the treatment of people; in other words they are totally results oriented... no matter how these results are achieved. Other codes of ethics take on the treatment of people but have so obviously been overworked by the obsession of financial results, no clear guidance emerges for the treatment of people.
The best codes of ethics we have found, focus back to the mission and values of the organization, not financial results. This seems to work fairly well because, generally, organizations are formed with the intention of helping others. Whether it is a for-profit corporation offering a helpful new product, a non-profit working for positive change, or a government agency serving the needs of constituents, the original intentions, captured in the mission and values, are generally good (we’ll skip organizations formed for ill purposes...). In these good examples we find terms such as: kindness, dignity, respect, dedication to every clients’ needs, constituent rights, concern for civil society, etc.
And perhaps most importantly, the best codes of ethics include an on-going process of discussion and participation by the leaders of the organization to not only ensure they are adhered to, but that discussions lead to continuous upgrades of the code. Some offer ethics help lines for employees to report unethical behavior with complete protection. Others regularly survey leaders and staff as to how well the code is being met.
But again, no matter the words or the tools your code of ethics uses, the level of ethical culture your organization achieves is what really matters. When a crisis or opportunity hits, this will mean the difference between wickedness or ethics commanding the outcome.
RESOURCES & SAMPLES
One of the most impressive examples we’ve found of an organization guided by ethics is the Swiss organization Ethos, established to watchdog investment activities www.ethosfund.ch.
Enjoy this video interview with the New York Times Magazine ethics columnist, Randy Cohen, that shows ethics must be primary to transportation design: http://www.streetfilms.org/archives/transportation-ethics/
We look forward to adding more resources and samples as we continue this ethics discussion. Please offer any that you have found valuable in your work as an organization leader and we will gladly post them. Thank you!