Published in the Delaware County Daily Times February 25, 2020
By Joseph Batory, Times Columnist
Ethics requires consistency—the absence of contradictions. As a guide for morality, ethics must be rational, and to be rational it must be free of contradictions.
Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University
I have often written about and advocated the use of “compromise” as an effective management tool to get past difficult stalemates/roadblocks in an organization.
But there is one “no-no” rule about compromise! There can be no compromise about ethical behavior. For many people these days, far too many in government and business leadership positions, ethics and morality have become occasional/situational at best and sometimes even ignored. But ethical behavior must be consistent, or said another way, it is not possible to be “half-ethical” or “somewhat ethical.” And these days in America, ethical behavior is all too often missing in action.
As superintendent of schools, I often lectured to my Upper Darby administrative staff regarding the priority for ethical decision making. Sometimes this topic seemed distant, unreal, and far from the realities of our school business. But, not always!
One day, I wandered into the office of an Upper Darby administrative colleague and found him holding and admiring a beautiful picture frame made of high-quality stained wood. “Nice frame,” I stated. “Was it expensive? Where did you get it?”
“Not at all.” The administrator replied. “It didn’t cost anything. Our maintenance shop made it for me. I just gave them the custom specs and they let me pick from the array of wood choices and believe it or not here it is only two days later. Just look at the workmanship!”
So maybe I tended to overreact sometimes. But at least I avoided throwing this subordinate out of the nearest window. I was tempted, however I shifted down into a lower gear.
I quietly began: Have you been in the same meetings with me where our principals keep telling us that their work orders for things needed in schools are typically behind schedule? How does our shop have time for your personal picture frame building? But let me ask you something even more important. You’ve just taken advantage of taxpayer funded labor and materials for your own personal purposes. Have you lost your (deleted expletive) mind?
The scorched administrator looked over at me with glazed eyes like I was some idiot. I watched his mind rationalizing his ethical breach and questioning my attack. Don’t you know how the workplace functions? Among workers, the philosophy is you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours. It’s just a benefit of any job.
Fortunately, I’m a pretty good mind-reader and I was furious. I issued a mandate: By this afternoon you will have requested and been given and paid in full an itemized bill from our maintenance shop for labor and maintenance for your gorgeous frame. You will also advise these misguided workers that in the judgment of this superintendent of schools, that they should be prioritizing the numerous work orders that affect schools and children and teachers. Be sure and tell them that I have not asked for their names… and that’s lucky for them. Because if this ever happens again, I’ll be looking to terminate people. I then stormed out of the office.
Some people might consider this incident to be very minor and even question my dramatic condemnation. But it is very often such little things which lead to bigger things and can ruin individual careers and organizational credibility.
On a much larger scale, in 1999, a scandal in a nearby affluent Delaware County school district offered a glaring example of a much larger ethical violation. A School Board investigation there had led to an independent audit which then uncovered more than $160,000 of alleged unauthorized spending by the office of the superintendent for valuable antiquated Asian objects and related services. What in the name of “the bizarre and the misappropriated” was going on in that school district?
This had nothing to do with Upper Darby, but I went berserk. I called a meeting of my Upper Darby administrative staff and principals. I ranted and raved at length about ancient Asian swords and scandals that colored all of us educators as a “bunch of crooks.” And I have never seen so many open mouth shocked administrators. But I think I made my position on this matter very clear.
As for the superintendent perp in that nearby school district, I could have cared less about what he had done to his career. That’s because the real damage that had been done was to the credibility of every public-school district in Delaware County and beyond.
It gets worse. About a month later I was visiting a university educational leadership professor friend and we chatted about the demise of this superintendent colleague whom we both knew. My friend told me he had great empathy for this superintendent and wondered what we could do to support him in his time of need.
Not me. No way I would help or support that superintendent perp. I stayed silent and managed to withhold all the invective I could. But I was really disturbed that my professor friend who was teaching many current as well as future school administrators was looking for compromise regarding this ethical violation.
My bottom line here is that there is that there is no room for compromise with ethics. Integrity, morality and consistent ethical behavior in business, education, government and personal living are absolutes and must be without contradiction. There is no middle ground.
Joseph Batory is a past superintendent of schools in the Upper Darby School District.