Guidance for Association Ethical Dilemmas

By: Joan L. Eisenstodt and William G. Scarborough

From the boardroom to membership, ethical issues arise every day in associations. But clear answers have never been easy to come by. Inspired by ASAE's new Standards of Conduct, a pair of experts look at four fictional scenarios and discuss how leaders can best respond to serious challenges. (Titled "Real-World Association Ethics" in the print edition.)

Leaders in the association community have difficult jobs, and it isn't always easy to decide on the best course of action when ethical dilemmas arise. Last August, the ASAE board took a step to address the issue by adopting the new ASAE Standards of Conduct. Though the standards are voluntary, they describe the expectations and behaviors that association professionals and executives, consultants, and industry partners should follow. As the standards put it: "Although adherence to the aspirational ethical standards is not easily measured, conducting one's self in accordance with these ethical standards is an expectation that members have as professionals."

So, what might this look like in practice? We conceived four fictional scenarios—none unusual in the day-to-day business of an association—with the goal to provide a clearer picture of how the standards can help in resolving ethical issues. There isn't always a "correct" answer to ethical concerns, but thinking through these scenarios may help you ask the right questions and find the answers that work best for your association—as well as the association community as a whole.

Scenario 1: Blowing the Whistle

It's become clear to Kathryn, a senior association staffer, that Jake, a colleague and friend on the senior staff, is not performing his job as expected. She expresses her concerns to him, and he says that he appreciates it, but in the weeks that follow he does nothing to modify his performance. Because of the important role he plays in the organization, and because his performance is affecting the efforts of other staff members, Kathryn decides to speak with the executive director.

The executive director expresses appreciation for the information and tells Kathryn that she did the right thing in coming forward. But later, reflecting on the situation, the executive director starts having second thoughts. He is better friends with Jake than he is with Kathryn, and he knows the two are competitive. In meetings after talking with Kathryn, he can't help but keep her at arm's length. She's begun to feel like she's being punished for coming forward, but he's not seeing Jake underperform to the degree Kathryn described.

No one set of standards can provide a clear solution to an ethical dilemma like this one, and associations should establish their own guidelines to respond to common issues in their industries. But a statement in ASAE's standards is a good launchpad here: "Maintain and constantly reexamine my impartiality and objectivity, taking corrective action as appropriate." The executive director in this scenario has to wonder how impartial he can be in assessing his friend, Jake, and whether he can talk to him in a way that would get to the heart of the problem. On the other hand, can the executive director confront Jake without involving Kathryn and eroding the trust she has built with senior staff?

The executive director's goal is to help staff be open and honest with each other: "Strive to create an environment in which others feel safe to tell the truth," as the standards put it. Can the executive director maintain that environment if he mentions Kathryn as his source, or will he create a situation where no one will come forward for fear of reprisal from their colleagues?

One key to maintaining objectivity is to make sure the facts are in order. In this case, the executive director can reasonably decide to investigate the matter further himself, getting status reports from senior staff that would allow him to verify the status of key initiatives in which Jake is critically involved. He would then hold meetings with senior staff and focus his discussion with Jake on the facts he gathered from a variety of sources—not solely on the observations of one staff person.

Scenario 2: Bending the CEO's Ear

An association foundation, in existence for 30 years, had been mostly inactive until four years ago, when it hired its first executive director. While the executive director's salary, benefits, and overhead are paid by the association, his fiduciary responsibility is to the foundation and its board.

The association's board chair also sits on the foundation board and on the foundation's nominating committee. He's used to getting his own way and has recently asked the executive director to have the foundation fund one of his pet initiatives. "Put it on the agenda," he says. "I'll suggest it as if it is your idea." The executive director feels put in a position of supporting the idea, though it doesn't fit well with the foundation's mission. But how can he quash an idea that's been made to appear like it's his in the first place?

The executive director knows he's being pressured by the board chair (who pays his salary), and he understands his obligation to serve the best interests of the foundation and put them first. But the best question to ask in this situation isn't, "What do I do about a bullying board member?" A better one is, "What is the interest of the board he needs to serve here?" A line in the standards is appropriate in this case: "Provide members, vendors, coworkers, and other stakeholders with all necessary information needed to make an informed decision."

How can he do this in the face of the pressures he is under from the board chair? His principal obligation is to provide the board with the information it needs to make an informed decision as to what is in the foundation's interest. To that end, he decides the board needs a motion template to be used for all motions in the future. The template he drafts has a section that must be completed, describing in detail all facts and the ethical, legal, and business implications that may result from the board's decision on a motion. (As a reminder to the board members about why they're doing this, he can quote the standard in the template: "Remain mission focused at all times.")

The executive director brings the template to the board meeting. He uses the board chair's desired motion as an example and lays out all the facts and implications of the motion that the board needs to make an informed decision. This moves the focus away from whose idea the motion was to a discussion on the merits of the motion itself.

Scenario 3: Self-Interested Site Selection

In selecting the destinations and venues for an association's forthcoming meetings, several stakeholders are tempted to indulge their personal interests. A future board chair wants to make sure her town is selected for an annual meeting to prove she can "bring business home." The CEO knows that a major sporting event he's eager to attend will be held in a city he's encouraged to select for a major meeting. The meeting planner wants to do an industry partner a favor by getting a contract signed by year's end, but is the industry partner looking out for the association or just aware that there's a personal bonus if business is booked within a specific timeframe?

Nobody here is prioritizing member needs, but the tricky part is that each person involved can argue that he or she is not scheming for personal gain. "We're doing good for the community and employment," says the future board chair. "It's a city that has to be on our meeting rotation," says the CEO. "The proposal was simply the best for the meeting," says the meeting planner. "If the deal isn't signed by December 31, it goes away," says the industry partner. "It's just business."

A statement in the standards addresses matters of conflicts of interest head on: "Hold foremost the interest of the association that employs the member and its industry or profession, faithfully executing the member's duties and never using his/her position for undue personal gain and promptly and completely disclosing to appropriate parties all potential and actual conflicts of interest."

In the site-selection scenario, the meeting planner has to question her own actions: Is she currying favors and perks—invitations to events, gifts, familiarization trips to sunny resorts—with a particular hotel company or CVB by ensuring business is on the books? The actions of the industry partner and the integrity of the site-selection process as a whole are now in question. The standards describe what often doesn't happen in this arena: "Demonstrate transparency in the decision-making process and disclose all potential and actual conflicts of interest." Have the parties been transparent and disclosed their motives in the process? The planner, realizing she may lose some partner-offered perks, is not sure they have.

Ultimately, the association must determine that its obligation is to its members and that selecting cities and hotels must benefit them and the meetings. That means giving transparency and disclosures a more prominent place than in the past. That may require the association to revise its processes, especially when site selection begins, but the membership will be better served for it.

Scenario 4: A Member in Need

Though it's not laid out in the bylaws or policies, it has been an association's longstanding practice not to offer or provide complimentary memberships or other financial assistance (such as complimentary or discounted registration fees or hotel room rates) to members. However, a respected longtime member is now out of work, and one of the member's friends asks the executive director if the association can make an exception, providing him with relief from paying dues for a few months as he pursues new employment opportunities. The executive director supports the idea. However, she's concerned about how she can do so without violating the rights of other members and helping one member when there are surely plenty of other out-of-work members who could benefit from dues relief during a difficult time.

Every association has to balance the need to provide good individual customer service with the responsibility to consider what's best for membership as a whole. "Serve the interest of the member's organization through fair, honest, and courteous dealings that help advance the association profession," the standards say. Would it be fair to others to give an exception to one member and not to all who have the same or similar hardship? Can the executive director provide the dues waiver to this member and still be transparent and honest if she does not communicate this action to the board or the membership of the organization?

Extending a gesture of generosity to a member is courteous, and extending that same gesture to the entire membership is fair. But transparency is just as important in this case, and the executive director must consider how many stakeholders she discusses this with, even if she's empowered to make this decision on her own. Ultimately, the executive director can decide that the standards provide her with a reason to give this longtime member a dues dispensation—and that, in the interest of fairness, she should make it available to all members in a similar situation. The executive director should call a special meeting of the board to discuss the situation, and they can begin the process of formulating a policy that works best for everyone.

Joan L. Eisenstodt is chief strategist of Eisenstodt Associates, LLC. William Scarborough, JD, is vice president and general counsel at Project Management Institute. They are chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the ASAE Ethics Committee. Emails: [email protected], [email protected]

Sidebar: Further Reading on Ethics

If you're looking for more guidance on association ethical issues, the following websites and books can help.



Joan L. Eisenstodt

William G. Scarborough

William G. Scarborough is vice president and general counsel at the Project Management Institute, Inc., in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.