Frequently asked questions

Ethics and Public Service

What is ethics?

Ethics refers to standards governing the conduct of a person or members of a profession. There are three aspects to ethics:

Why is ethics important?

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What is public-service ethics?

To earn and safeguard public trust, employees and agencies must not only comply with laws and regulations but adhere to higher standards than normally expected or required. “Wrongdoing” is often an ethical rather than a legal concept, so avoiding ethical misconduct is not only the right thing for public administrators to do, it’s a vital and effective risk-management strategy.

Why is public-service ethics important?

Widespread cynicism. Embarrassing scandals. Obstructive partisanship. Crippling regulations. Fault-finding media. Damaging investigations. Whopping penalties. Managing public institutions has never been tougher. The mere accusation of wrongdoing can harm reputations, drain morale, hamper the ability to attract and retain top talent, and impair the delivery of public service.

Whose responsibility is public-service ethics?

Everyone’s, but it starts at the top. Elected officials, policymakers, and senior management should walk the talk by modeling, communicating, and enforcing their expectations and commitment to ethical decision-making.

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Do ethics codes work?

Ethics codes don’t make people ethical, make bad people good, or make people with poor judgment wise. But they can help define what’s right, instill an ethical culture, and establish standards of conduct in areas not governed by law. Studies have found that:

What values should be implemented?

In 1992, Josephson Institute convened a summit conference in Aspen, Colorado, of the nation’s foremost educators, youth leaders, and ethicists. The gathering created the Six Pillars of Character (trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship), a set of clear, consistent, nonpartisan, nonsectarian principles of conduct designed to resonate across society.

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What makes an ethics code effective?

What sustains an ethics code?

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What are the 10 myths of ethics?

  1. It’s ethical if it’s legal and permissible. Loopholes, lax enforcement, and/or personal moral judgment do not outweigh what’s right or lawful.
  2. It’s ethical if it’s part of the job. Separating personal ethics from work ethics can cause decent people to justify actions at work that they would never do at home. Everyone’s first job is to be a good person.
  3. It’s ethical if it’s for a good cause. People can be vulnerable to rationalizations when advancing a noble aim. This can lead to deception, concealment, conflicts of interest, favoritism, or other departmental violations.
  4. It’s ethical if no one’s hurt. Ethical values are not factors to be considered in decision-making; they are ground rules.
  5. It’s ethical if everyone does it. Treating questionable behaviors as ethical norms under the guise of “safety in numbers” is a false rationale.
  6. It’s ethical if I don’t gain personally. Improper conduct done for others or for institutional purposes is wrong. Personal gain is not the only test of impropriety.
  7. It’s ethical if I’ve got it coming. Being overworked or underpaid doesn’t justify accepting favors, discounts, or gratuities. Nor is abusing sick time, insurance claims, or personal use of office equipment fair compensation for one’s services or underappreciated efforts.
  8. It’s ethical if I’m objective. By definition, if you’ve lost your objectivity, you don’t know you’ve lost it. Gratitude, friendship, or anticipation of future favors can subtly affect one’s judgment.
  9. It’s ethical if I fight fire with fire. Promise-breaking, lying, or other misconduct is unacceptable even if others routinely engage in them.
  10. It’s ethical if I do it for you. Committing white lies or withholding information in professional relationships (such as performance reviews) disregards the fact that most people would rather know unpleasant information than soothing falsehoods.

What is Josephson Institute?

Founded in 1987 by Michael Josephson, the Institute is a nonpartisan, nonsectarian, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the ethical quality of society by changing personal and organizational decision-making and behavior. It offers training programs and consulting services to influential leaders across the country in the areas of business, public administration, policing, character education, and sportsmanship.

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What is Josephson Institute’s approach to public-service ethics?

The mission of our Center for Public Service Ethics is to help institutions shape, enhance, and fortify their ethical culture and to prevent misconduct from eroding confidence in the public sector. To accomplish this, the Institute developed five core principles for the public-service arena:

  1. Place public interest over all other considerations including personal or private interests.
  2. Make decisions on the merits, free from partiality, prejudice, or conflicts of interest.
  3. Conduct government openly, efficiently, equitably, and honorably.
  4. Observe the letter and spirit of the law.
  5. Avoid appearances of impropriety or unethical conduct.

What programs and services does Josephson Institute offer?

Training and Education

The Center offers a variety of ethics-training approaches. Services include:

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The Center also offers customized support. Services include:


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