Contagious Effects of a District’s Ethics Code


Few U.S. school districts employ an ethics officer, and it’s unclear how many have formal ethics codes. My experience in the San Diego Unified School District suggests that more districts might consider the option.

It’s not that wrongdoing is on the upswing. But in this era of budget cutting and high-stakes accountability, when critics may raise suspicion about what’s really happening with the money, a school district that leads with clarity about ethics can bolster community trust. As a bonus, it also can strengthen employee morale and motivation.

A good ethics code encompasses two things: compliance and aspiration. The first is about laws and regulations, what’s allowable and what isn’t. The second is about values, the “why” behind the rules. Why do we care if someone’s too cozy with vendors? Why does being a school district — where we’re all about kids — make it matter even more?

A sense of calling is what brought most staff to work in education in the first place. They already are values-driven. An ethics code can tap into that motivation and tie directly to performance goals. In San Diego, the code linked to the slogan “Becoming America’s Best.”

Yet the code itself is only a tool. What gives it meaning is employees’ trust that the organization’s leaders, especially those at the top, are living the values being espoused.

Enacting a Code
The San Diego Unified School District had an impetus to adopt an ethics code and hire an ethics officer in 2006. While fallout from Enron and WorldCom was widespread, the city of San Diego had been dubbed “Enron by the sea” for its City Hall pension scandals, followed by a congressman jailed for corruption. Attention to ethics was a citywide urgency, and Carl Cohn, the new superintendent, gave priority to developing an ethics code for the district.

The school district’s code of ethics consists of 10 concise statements on one side of a page. Rather than dictates, they are “we” statements: “We will treat each other and members of the community fairly and with dignity and respect”; “We will put forth an honest effort in the performance of our duties”; “We will not hold financial interests that conflict with the performance of our duties to the district”; and “We will disclose waste, fraud, abuse and corruption.”

To enact the code, we created a program with two aspects: enforcement and employee support. The key mechanism of enforcement is a fraud hotline that employees can call anonymously to report suspected wrongdoing. “Help keep our reputation strong” is on hotline posters districtwide. All reports are investigated by the audits office, with appropriate further action taken if warranted.

Employee support is about raising ethical awareness. What does that mean? For starters, it meant familiarizing 16,000 employees with the ethics code. That required a multifaceted information and communication program, which we anchored in a content-rich website. Employees could click on any point in the code — say, conflicts of interest — and get a full explanation, real-life examples and links to related resources. Or they could take the quiz, featuring workplace-based “what should I do?” scenarios. Or they could watch the video with its clear messages such as “not knowing is not an excuse,” and tips for recognizing trouble zones. The video encouraged district employees to call the ethics office helpline to avoid inadvertently getting themselves into trouble.

Heart of the Matter
But broad-based resources and messages were clearly not enough. We needed to do training and get people involved in dialogue. In so large a system, that meant determining focus. Where and with whom would we start?

A key guidepost was a striking research finding in the aftermath of the Enron scandal. Ethics and compliance programs had increased in organizations nationwide, but the expected positive outcomes from those programs had not. The reason? Programs focused almost solely on the dos and don’ts, while the primary influence on how people behave is the organization’s culture. Fail to reshape the culture, and nothing much will change.

Influencing culture is not easy, and we had no illusions that an ethics program alone could dissipate the distrust and “us versus them” mindset that at the time pervaded the district. But as one key effort, we focused where extensive management literature shows that it matters most: on the district’s leaders—starting at the top and throughout the ranks.

Partnering with the Institute for Global Ethics in Rockland, Maine, we developed a three-hour ethical leadership workshop. Without question we covered the dos and don’ts, stressing managers’ responsibility to ensure staff awareness and compliance. But we underscored the impact of culture, how it exerts behavioral pressures on people, positive or negative, and how leaders at every level shape that culture every day by what they say and don’t say, do and don’t do.

In groups of 30, more than 500 leaders, from supervisor on up, participated. Because dialogue focused on shared values and ethical decision making, all participants came prepared to share a real-life dilemma they had faced. We touched on gray areas where right versus wrong is hard to sort out, but the focus was on the right-versus-right dilemmas that saturate the education landscape. Is it better to cut art instruction or buses? Should you stick to school policy or make an exception in this one student’s heart-wrenching case?

Table groups worked through the dilemmas, using the Institute for Global Ethics’ process for analyzing and resolving dilemmas. Half in each group were site leaders, half from the central office. Fiscal department heads walked in the shoes of principals. Food service managers experienced the thorny choices that curriculum leaders face.

Spreading Impact
It’s admittedly hard to quantify the success of this kind of program. If calls to the hotline rise, is it because the culture is marginalizing wrongdoing or because problems are increasing? But workshop evaluations and other, less-formal evidence pointed to impact.

The ethics code’s very existence sent a powerful message to stakeholders. And skeptical employees turned into strong supporters once they believed this could help deter headline-grabbing behavior that undermines their hard work. Principals and department heads led staffs through the website materials, and some initiated dilemma discussions at staff meetings.

Crucially, we had integrity at the top, which provided credibility. It also was contagious.

Consider that 20 of the school district’s most respected principals, vice principals and central-office leaders enthusiastically donated their time to be trained and serve as the ethics workshop facilitators. They found in those sessions that their peers were equally hungry to talk about the values that drive their work. Together they gained a common language for articulating the thought process behind tough decisions, a practice that reveals ethical priorities and builds trust.

Due largely to fiscal cutbacks, San Diego Unified has curtailed the ethics program. But other districts are picking up its threads, helping decision makers lead with values. And that’s the currency for success no matter what the budget.

Joan McRobbie, former ethics officer in San Diego Unified Schools, is a senior research associate at WestEd in San Francisco, Calif. E-mail: