The Wonderfully Real World of Ethics
Last week, I attended the NC City/County Manager’s Association Summer conference in Asheville. Though I only was in Asheville Friday and Saturday, I did get the opportunity to sit in on a few sessions. One that I really enjoyed was a workshop about ethics led by ICMA’s Martha Perego. The managers in the room were split into four different groups and presented with a number of scenarios where they were to evaluate a situation and decide on the most ethical solution. Listening to the groups, I realized how many of these “real-world” situations fell very much in an undefined grey area. In school we’re often taught hard technical skills- math, science, etc. but it’s highly unlikely for any of us to enter the workforce and avoid being in a situation that requires softer skills. In reality, we will face many situations that may or may not have one clear-cut correct answer. The question becomes, how do we prepare for these situations?
Ethics workshops such as this one often seem very silly (at one point, I believe the remark was made by a manager “I really hope there aren’t any students in here right now”). It’s easy to smirk at a scenario presented to you by a professional. At the end of the day though, we need to be prepared to make quick decisions that will have long-lasting effects and be confident enough in our own personal integrity to not overlook any important factors, while also being humble enough to take time and ask for advice and perspectives from everyone involved.
There’s often a debate about whether soft skills can actually be taught, and admittedly, I sometimes believe that some people are more naturally equipped with these skills, but I do think that an emphasis on softer skills (communication and interpersonal relations) is necessary in our curricula. However, the manner in which we approach these issues is critical to how effectively we can expose students to softer skills. For example, I think some students (myself included) are often turned off by the idea of going through scenario after scenario, as we don’t sense any amount of reality in these situations. There’s somewhat of an understanding that most of these skills are best learned through experience. But, does that mean we leave students to trip and fall on their glowing young faces when there’s a high chance their actions will have long term effects on their professional career? My guess would be not. There needs to be somewhat of a middle ground where students can be exposed to real-world situations, but have access to seasoned professionals for advice and encouragement. There also should be a level of assurance that your actions won’t damage the rest of your professional career, but really can serve as learning experiences.
The best example I can think of for these situations are from our very own MPA program (I know, I know, this seems like a shameless plug, but I promise it’s not…sorta). As a first-year in Professor Gordon Whitaker’s Personal Management and Leadership course, we chose team projects from real clients across the state. There were a number of different proposals presented to the class, and it was very easy to find one of interest. Throughout the semester, each team worked on their chosen proposal and learned how to deal with “real-world” situations. While sometimes these projects didn’t present overt ethical situations, they were still opportunities to engage with the real world. Maybe we can find a way to incorporate ethics into these projects more, but at the very least, I think they are a step in the right direction for students to begin to understand the scope of their professions. My hope is that these projects continue on (despite the departure of Gordon to a world of leisure, better known as retirement), and that students continue to learn from these real experiences.