In the world today ethics and morality are written about, debated, and are often the cause of much controversy in many public forums. In the fire service we see that this issue is also a point of contention. We see that ethics are ambiguous, hard to define, no matter how clearly defined they are organizationally. However, despite the controversial and ambiguous nature of ethics they are inherently necessary to the life of the public servant.
“Clearly, public service ethics has become a very broad and often ambiguous category that sometimes generates controversy as to what constitutes the term” (Zamor, p.1). Yet in the realm of public service, it continues to demand individuals of higher moral character and behavior while yet failing to produce a consistent example or mechanism of enforcement. Why is this so? One begins to wonder, with all of the emphasis on the individual how much of their ethical performance is determined by the organizational processes or culture?
• Will the members of higher moral character tire of doing the right thing because their cultural climate is ethically absent? Or ‘if the opportunity presents itself, and the risk of getting caught is low, and if the organization does not foster an ethical climate, then chances are fairly good that corruption will take place” (Zamor, p.6).
• Will a devout religious individual fail ethically if forced to choose between their principles and their paycheck?
• Will a compliance based ethical employee fail the organization if not given proper boundaries such as codes of ethics and organizational controls?
Denhardt asserts that ethics are “the process by which we clarify right from wrong and act on what we take to be right’ (Zamor, p.1). The phrase that should grab our attention is deemed ‘bureaucratic discretion’; wherein the public servant exercises his or her ability to make the proper decisions within the framework of organizational controls and codes of ethics. In firefighter terms, this is when he or she faces down an incident and has to make a decision.
As a firefighter we have our framework, the incident command system, and we understand our response protocols thus knowing our resource capabilities. We size up the problem, formulate the incident action plan, and move into action. On the average, firefighters are statistically consistent in these areas because of the constant training, accountability measures, and practice of these skills.
Yet in the realm of ethical decision making we seem hesitant and treat the decision as if it were a hazardous materials incident. We recognize, notify, identify/isolate, and protect if necessary because we know what we are dealing with may have consequences that outlive us. We sometimes put off making the decision or avoid it altogether which goes against the very nature of firefighters. In my opinion, the individual’s ethical performance is impaired or affected by the organizational processes for three main reasons:
• Claim without consistent conduct.
• Fears of financial loss.
• A lack of organizational controls and codes of conduct.
Claim without Consistent Conduct:
First, any individual who is employed in an organization that supports ethical behavior in policy but their organization fails to truly exemplify it in its daily actions will be setting the stage for ethical dilemmas. Policies without practice are mere words without meaning. In today’s social and political climate if one claims a specific religious belief they are often labeled intolerant but perhaps organizations should consider the value of the individual who has strong values from a faith based perspective other than a constant redefining of right and wrong based on politics and not morality? Others often shy away from the importance of spirituality and its correlative effect on individual ethical performance because of the abuses of the few cause many to judge the whole. Let us consider the ethical performance of an individual with strong faith based beliefs: “an individual’s spirituality is critical to his/her comprehension and perception of ethical behavior” (Zamor, p.6). But there are also many instances where as in our organizational ethics those who claim a strong spiritual foundation fail to practice their beliefs in all parts of their lives. The prophet Isaiah sums it up well: “The Lord says: “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13). And the inherent nature of an individual to ignore the code of conduct is summed up well in this quote:
‘Operational enforcement structures and procedures’ hence end up taking ‘the form of elegant plaques that are hung on the office walls and thereafter ignored. They may be quoted on ceremonial occasions, but never taken seriously enough to use in assessing the conduct of individual members” (Zamor, p4).
In firefighter terms, the organization’s member’s talk must match its talk. In all of the research it comes back to integrity. “It is the public servant’s internal moral character and individual conscience that is critical in ensuring that actions are ethical and are in line with the ethics codes, and that they are carried out with integrity and morality. Carl Friedrich (1935) stated that internal control and individual conscience are the core of ethical behavior and standards in the public service.” (Zamor, p.4). In short, if those who create the policies fail to follow the policies it breeds apathy and anarchy. Its members will stop believing in them and they will have lost all credibility.
Secondly, individual ethical performance is often compromised for financial reasons. Many employees have failed to speak up on matters of principle, unfair treatment, or other issues for fear of losing their job. An organization that has set a precedent by its informal culture of persecuting those who blow the whistle sets the stage for intimidating certain employees.
Compliance Based Ethics:
Lastly, we come to the compliance based ethical individual. The policies, procedures, and general statutes are specifically for these individuals and without these individuals tend to wander beyond the ethical boundaries. “Left to their own, some public servants may engage in selfish behavior. This is where external controls like rules and regulations, penalties and punishments that impose constraints on the conduct of public servants find usefulness” (Zamor, p.6).
Many departments fail to publish their code of ethics and S.O.G’s believing that ethical behaviors are common sense. These departments fail to be proactive and often react by writing a policy based upon an ethical breech and often resulting in the damage to the public’s trust. Thus the “Your name here-S.O.G.” is born. Each time an ethical dilemma is faced a new policy is written and each year the policy book grows thicker and the offenses continue. An organization must endorse, train, and educate its employees on its policies and processes. ‘When ethics training is successful, employees become aware of ethical choices and have the knowledge and resources to choose and carry out the right choices’ (Zamor, p.8).
Despite the organizational processes that may impact individual ethical performance “ultimately, public service ethics depend on the individual conscience of the public servants and the organizational constraints that may take the form of rules and regulations, codes of conduct, organizational process, structures, and culture” (Zamor, p.8). The ethical performance of the individual resides with the individual but the organizational processes can be a test of one’s moral character. It has been said that “the power of petition is based upon the depth of the relationship” (Dr. Larry Crabb) thus the ethical performance of an employee is may be judged by the depth of their conscience. An individual will do the ‘right thing’ in the difficult moments if their values are deeply rooted. Such “values are formed long before people enter public service” (Zamor p.8). This type of organizational ethical performance test could be invaluable for departments in screening future employees.
Another process that is critical to individual ethical performance that is often overlooked is the hiring process. Each organization would do well to conduct more research to discover if the person’s ethics they are about to hire truly align with the values of the department. Some employers are already using Emotional Quotient Testing in their hiring processes. There are Fire Departments in the U.S. who are currently using Emotional Quotient Testing in hiring and retention. One such example is a service called Zero Risk HR for Emotional Intelligence Pre-employment Assessment (http://www.zeroriskhr.com/). This is another type of organization control to insure the department is hiring those who value align with the organization. Chief Dennis Rubin, former Chief of Washington DC Fire states it well in his class “How not to hire idiots, thugs, and misfits.”
“It would be interesting to “dollarize” all of the costs associated with the discipline process that a department spends during a single year. Some examples are the personnel needed to investigate bad behaviors; the time and effort to document same; the cost to consult with outside agencies such as police or attorneys; if a member is suspended or terminated, calculate the replacement over-time costs; the aspect of spending time with the media explaining the situation and so on.” (Dennis Rubin)
In conclusion, the ethical performance of an individual can be affected by organizational processes but it is ultimately up to the individual’s values. These processes are in the news daily such as ‘Firefighters vote no confidence in Fire Chief’, “Former employee alleges firing was based on her whistle blowing efforts”, and “Fire Chief accused of making racial slur during meeting.” The examples given in this article show how the informal cultural processes of an organization can affect an individual’s ethical performance.
Casey, Michael P. (2007) Emotional Intelligence for Emergency Service Leaders.
Retrieved from: http://www.usfa.fema.gov/pdf/efop/efo40416.pdf
Genevieve Enid Kyarimpa & Jean-Claude Garcia-Zamor (2006): The Quest for Public Service Ethics: Individual Conscience and Organizational Constraints, Public Money & Management, 26:1, 31-38
Rubin, Dennis. (2012). How not to hire idiots, thugs, and misfits. Fire Rescue1 magazine. Retrieved from: http://www.firerescue1.com/fire-department-management/articles/1377396-Hiring-plan-How-not-to-hire-idiots-thugs-and-misfits/