Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 9, Issue 48;   December 2, 2009: On the Appearance of Impropriety

On the Appearance of Impropriety

by

Last updated: August 8, 2018

Avoiding the appearance of impropriety is a frequent basis of business decisions. What does this mean, what are the consequences of such avoiding, and when is it an appropriate choice?
Representative Sam Graves, Republican of Missouri

Representa­tive Sam Graves, Republican of Missouri. Rep. Graves was the subject of an investigation by the independent, non-partisan Office of Congressional Ethics, with regard to a Small Business Committee hearing that occurred on March 4, 2009. Rep. Graves had arranged for Brooks Hurst, a business associate of his wife's, to testify before the small business committee, of which Graves was at the time the ranking member. Mrs. Graves and Hurst had a joint interest in renewable-fuel facilities in Missouri, and Graves and Hurst also jointly owned several small aircraft and flew together. (Read the complete report of the OCE.) To some, these financial entanglements, together with Graves' rather uncooperative approach to the OCE investigation, raised questions of improper exercise by Graves of his official authority.

But there's much more to this story. The OCE was created, in part, to address widespread concerns that over decades, the House Ethics Committee had not been functioning with appropriate aggressiveness. Thus, there was tension between the OCE and the Ethics Committee, which had recently cleared Graves of any wrongdoing. Open acknowledgment by the OCE and the committee of this larger agenda — the conflict between the two bodies — had probably been insufficient in this case. This political struggle, it seems to me, could have affected the proceedings of both bodies, and could have presented at least the appearance of impropriety in itself, because it could have created a conflict of interest for both bodies as they weighed the Graves case. Photo courtesy U.S. House of Representatives.

Most of us recognize that ethical standards are more stringent than legal ones. Sometimes, though, even the ethical standard isn't tight enough — we must also avoid the appearance of impropriety. Although some find it frustrating, it's essential in complex societies.

Here's an example.

You're selecting a vendor. Familiar, Inc., has often worked with your firm, but they're expensive. New Guys, Inc., a recent entry in the market, has low prices, fresh ideas and great references. Since executives from Familiar founded New Guys, you're sure they know their stuff. For many, New Guys would be a tempting option — daring, but probably worth the risk. A reasonable choice.

Let's consider a slightly different situation. Suppose that the New Guys sales rep is your boss's sister. What's your choice now?

Without the sister factor, choosing New Guys is probably a good business decision. But if you're concerned about the appearance of impropriety, and possible accusations of nepotism, the sister factor makes New Guys an impossible choice, no matter how good they are.

Concerns about appearances can require us to forgo what otherwise would be excellent business decisions. Sometimes we must make choices that yield results inferior to other options because they could create appearances of impropriety, even when nothing improper is involved. This can be frustrating, and some are tempted to ignore appearances, especially when accounting for appearances is expensive.

Why must we be concerned with appearances? We live in societies in which we transact business with people we don't know well. Our relationships often lack the intimate familiarity of a village or small town. In effect, we've traded away that familiarity for the benefits of the complexity of our large societies.

In place of familiarity, we need something else to ensure that the people we interact with are behaving ethically. The standard of appearance provides this. When we meet the standard of avoiding even the appearance of impropriety, others can be more certain that we're behaving ethically.

But appearance is hard to define. Although some have put forward concise definitions of the appearance of impropriety, none is universally accepted. Reasonable people can disagree about whether a particular action appears improper.

To understand Although some have put forward
concise definitions of the
appearance of impropriety,
none is universally accepted
appearance, we must be willing to see things from the vantage points of others, including those who lack full knowledge of our decision processes. We must abandon our personal judgment of the appearance, and accept, however temporarily, the perspectives of others, including those with whom we disagree.

My personal approach is to take positions that I believe will be acceptable to a wide array of people, recognizing that from time to time, there will be some who are perturbed or even incensed about my choices. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes I have to backtrack, and always I am human. Go to top Top  Next issue: A Critique of Criticism: I  Next Issue

303 Secrets of Workplace PoliticsIs every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info

See "It Might Be Legal, but It's Unethical," Point Lookout for August 14, 2002 for a bit more on the appearance of impropriety.

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Ethics at Work:

ApplesCurrying Favor
The behavior of the office kiss-up drives many people bats. It's more than annoying, though — it does real harm to the organization. What is the behavior?
A cup of coffeeDubious Dealings
Negotiating contracts with outsourcing suppliers can present ethical dilemmas, even when we try to be as fair as possible. The negotiation itself can present conflicts of interest. What are those conflicts?
A TSA Officer screening a passengerVirtual Termination with Real Respect
When we have to terminate someone who works at a remote site, sometimes there's a temptation to avoid travel — to use email, phone, fax, or something else. They're all bad ideas. Terminating people in person is not only a gesture of respect. It's good business.
Police line tapeCounterproductive Knowledge Work Behavior
With the emergence of knowledge-oriented workplaces, counterproductive work behavior is taking on new forms that are rare or inherently impossible in workplaces where knowledge plays a less central role. Here are some examples.
Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD)Full Disclosure
The term "full disclosure" is now a fairly common phrase, especially in news interviews and in film and fiction thrillers involving government employees or attorneys. It also has relevance in the knowledge workplace, and nuances associated with it can affect your credibility.

See also Ethics at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Winston Churchill in the Canadian Parliament, December 30, 1941Coming December 18: The Trap of Beautiful Language
As we assess the validity of others' statements, we risk making a characteristically human error — we confuse the beauty of their language with the reliability of its meaning. We're easily thrown off by alliteration, anaphora, epistrophe, and chiasmus. Available here and by RSS on December 18.
Three gears in a configuration that's inherently locked upAnd on December 25: Disjoint Awareness
In collaborations, awareness of how our own work might interfere with the work of others is essential. Unless our awareness of others' work — and their awareness of ours — matches reality, the collaboration's objective is at risk. Available here and by RSS on December 25.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The
Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.