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A responsibility to ethics, despite personal cost

An organization’s ethical reputation is also a reflection of its leadership

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By Jay Fitch, PhD

I was dumb struck! My boss overturned my recommendation to terminate a subordinate I worked with for months to change their behavior. The caregiver repeatedly violated policy and after multiple steps of progressive discipline, I planned a “decision day” as a final step before termination. Confused, I later found out that the boss had a personal relationship with the caregiver outside of work. I had always looked up to my boss, but now was convinced that the boss’s integrity was compromised. I was faced with a decision: confront him or suck it up and keep my head down?

I decided to wait and see if this was an isolated incident. My respect for the boss took a huge hit that day and I learned a hard lesson as a young leader. Ethical leaders must ensure that decisions are made impartially and not be based on outside factors. Fairness is a foundational component of ethical leadership within any public safety organization.

When confronted with making an ethical decision as a public safety leader, we rarely think about where our own values and ethics came from. Our ethics, moral principles and behavior are typically shaped by our family of origin and the cultural environment in which we are raised. Other factors that shape our early development may include guidance provided by religious beliefs, early education and our peers.

One of the thought leaders on this topic is Dr. Morris Massey. Dr. Massey taught human behavior for many years at the University of Colorado. His video series, “What you are is where you were when” described three major periods during which values are developed.

  1. The imprint period. Up to the age of 7, we are like sponges, absorbing everything around us and accepting much of it as true, especially when it comes from our parents. The confusion and blind belief of this period can also lead to the early formation of trauma and other deep problems. The critical thing here is to learn a sense of right and wrong, good and bad. This is a human construction zone.
  2. The modeling period. Between the ages of 8 and 13, we copy people, often our parents, but also other people. Rather than blind acceptance, we are trying on things like a suit of clothes, to see how they feel. I can still remember my fourth-grade teacher who seemed so knowledgeable. At that time, she influenced me even more than my parents.
  3. The socialization period. Between 13 and 21, we are very largely influenced by our peers. As we develop as individuals and look for ways to get away from the earlier programming, we naturally turn to people who seem more like us. Other influences at these ages include the media, especially those parts which seem to resonate with the values of our peer groups.

We should also consider the exponential growth of social media in recent years, particularly as a primary source of news for many in Gen Z (born 1997-2012). Social media is also shaping perceptions of right and wrong.

Think of this in the context of the current ethics debates in all three branches of the federal government: Congress, The Executive Branch and the Supreme Court. Regardless of whether you prefer red or blue politicians, it’s hard to deny that current behaviors are not shaping perceptions of what is ethical. The public historically looked to all three branches as a beacon of ethics. Based on media reports today, not so much.

Leading with integrity

Common sense should prevail. In our own public safety organizations, being an ethical leader creates a more positive workplace and a culture in which caregivers feel valued and motivated. When leaders exhibit integrity and fairness, caregivers are more likely to be engaged and be more deeply satisfied with their work and the organization.

An organization’s ethical reputation is also a reflection of its leadership. Ethical leaders prioritize the long-term success of the organization over short-term gains. Building a positive reputation supports trusting relationships with local governments, hospitals and can help attract top talent to the organization.

Our leadership behavior is the ultimate way ethics are judged by others. My disillusionment with my boss continued as did his unethical behavior. My own ethical failure to appropriately challenge the behavior led to others in the organization being hurt over time. And that still haunts me. Ultimately, the boss left the organization after several years in disgrace. It became a powerful lesson about my responsibility to be an ethical leader, no matter what the personal cost.

Grow your leadership skills

About the author
Jay Fitch, PhD, is a founding partner at the emergency services consulting firm, Fitch & Associates. He has nearly five decades of EMS/public safety experience and now serves as the executive director of the non-profit Fitch EMS Education Foundation.

For more than three decades, the Fitch & Associates team of consultants has provided customized solutions to the complex challenges faced by public safety organizations of all types and sizes. From system design and competitive procurements to technology upgrades and comprehensive consulting services, Fitch & Associates helps communities ensure their emergency services are both effective and sustainable. For ideas to help your agency improve performance in the face of rising costs, call 888-431-2600 or visit