“With great power comes great responsibility.”
These wise words made famous by Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben have become ingrained in my thought processes ever since I watched Spiderman for the first time. It was a concept that became part of how I live my life and see the world: don’t take advantage of people who have less power or less of ANYTHING than you. Chose what’s right over what’s easy. Don’t do anything illegal. Little did I know that Uncle Ben’s adage is the best answer to why business ethics exist and why it is necessary in association management.
Since February 2019, attending a one-credit ethics session has been a requirement for obtaining the Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential, which signals that an association professional has demonstrated the knowledge essential to managing associations. To become a CAE, association professionals must prove their competency in association management by passing an exam and attaining 100 credit hours. A required ethics session brings ethics to the forefront of being a competent association executive. But rather than act as simply a box to check off, understanding how ethics impacts association management, and why, is essential to being a successful association professional.
How Are We Defining Ethics?
There are a variety of ideas surrounding what ethics is. It’s generally perceived as “the right thing to do,” or a means to a noble cause. At the very least, you know that you’re not doing anything illegal when you follow codes of ethics. Yet business ethics are not limited to the confines of legality. It is indeed “doing the right thing,” but under the parameters of a company and its relationship with its clients. Ethics in association management is manifest in many different ways. There is the ethos of transparency, disclosing conflicts of interest, accountability, whistle-blowing policies, confidentiality, guidelines for personal behavior, sticking to responsibilities, respecting the unity of the board, and so forth. Ethical standards are not meant to inhibit; rather, they give organizations a predetermined space to function and the freedom to know where the company should not cross lines to avoid trouble. The ethics discussed in this blog reflect the ways that association management companies create a sense of balance with the associations they serve.
Why Do We Need Ethics?
Association management companies have the resources, skills, knowledge, and expertise that associations seek for effective management. In other words, association management companies’ tools act as a power they have, and since they are entrusted to manage associations, the companies also have power to either help or harm their clients. Due to this imbalance of power and equality, ethics and an ethical conduct help create balance, or a leveraged playing field, between the two parties by ensuring these companies don’t misuse their power. Creating this sense of balance is also a way for these companies to establish trust with their clients. Nonprofit associations, in particular, are held to a higher level of trust and expectations than for-profit companies. After all, by their very nature, association professionals do not work for associations to achieve stock dividends or personal revenue; rather, association professionals nobly work toward the greater good. Therefore, by working ethically with association clients, association management companies are able to sustain a trusting relationship with them and help them attain their missions.
The worst-case scenario to come from acting unethically is going to jail for breaking the law. In a less-serious case, one will either break trust with clients or be unable to gain trust in the future. On the other hand, the best case-scenario for acting ethically is earning trust and setting an example with guidelines and standards for care, behavior, and professionalism with clients. Associations and boards that act ethically are more effective, make better decisions, and see better results.
What About Gray Areas?
If an action is illegal, you can be certain it is unethical. But as previously mentioned, not all unethical practices are illegal, and even legal practices are not always black and white. If you get an uneasy feeling about a scenario in your stomach or would not want it to be on the front page news, then it is likely unethical. If someone you admire would not proceed in a scenario, it is likely unethical. If a gut reaction does not convince you, look to your peers, managers, and executives as resources. ASAE has a Code of Conduct by which all CAEs must abide with their associations; while this is a general resource, you can seek the codes that associations created themselves, like the American College of Healthcare Executives Code of Ethics. And of course, legal counsel is the safest bet if you doubt the legality of a situation.
What Would Uncle Ben Do?
I think Uncle Ben would have made a great association professional, had he survived the carjacking in Spiderman. He probably would have rephrased his famous adage: “With great association management expertise comes a great need to be responsible stewards of the associations we serve.” In the end, associations having this expertise, or power, means nothing if we are to do others harm by it.
Megan Toal is a content marketing associate in the Creative Media Services team at AMC.
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