Ethics: It Isn't Just Presidents Who Get in Trouble!

By Casey, James B. | American Libraries, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Ethics: It Isn't Just Presidents Who Get in Trouble!


Casey, James B., American Libraries


One thing that I've learned in some 15 years as a public library director is that none of us walks on water - unless it is covered by a very thin layer of ice. Many a talented and skillful administrator has ended up swimming in the coldest of water after a missed step that most of us could make without the slightest hint of danger. Naturally, we all take such baths from time to time; I have frequently told my staff that I didn't arrive at the director level by avoiding mistakes, but by learning from the many I had already made.

There are some mistakes, however, that can bring an end to one's career, give rise to the most deadly of press coverage for a library, and possibly wind up in the courts. Errors involving ethical lapses or misjudgments often have a ring of finality.

While ethical conduct is far from an exact science, some misconduct might seem to be pretty obvious. Consider the case of a public library director who was short of cash and used the library's expense account to cover a few bills "just until the next paycheck." Is it theft or merely taking advantage of one's expense account - a "perk" - in an emergency? This person ended up being indicted.

Over the years I have seen a former ALA president convicted of receiving double reimbursements; a library director and member of a governor's cabinet charged with theft of library money; a library treasurer fired and nearly indicted for "borrowing" hundreds of dollars worth of change from the library pop machine; a library director with a business on the side being questioned about use of the library photocopier without reimbursing the library; and, of course, the charges - sometimes all too true - of library directors "requesting" sexual or other favors from subordinate staff members.

As serious and clear-cut as these instances of malfeasance might seem, it is not impossible that the persons committing them proceeded either with the notion that they were taking proper advantage of a position of authority that they had earned and deserved, or that they were doing nothing terribly wrong.

It might even be a matter of the culprit saying, "I'm really underpaid and deserve to take these 'extras.' It is expected that allowances be made for persons at 'my level of responsibility.'" Phooey! Directors just make bigger and juicier targets for auditors, journalists, and unhappy employees.

In general, it can be said that those who take advantage of their positions of authority to extract personal gain are very likely to be treading on very shaky ground. I would advise the intrepid director who is determined to embark on a journey in this danger zone to make sure that every step is clearly documented and not in any way made to appear concealed. Those in doubt about ethical matters should ask the library's legal counsel and make matters known to other responsible members of the library staff.

Beware of banks bearing gifts

Maybe in my old age I have come to worry too much. I'm always nervous about accepting the annual "personal gift"of a thermos bottle or luggage cart from local banks, since I am the person who has authority to invest hundreds of thousands of library dollars in their jumbo CDs several times each year. I would accept the gifts on behalf of the library, but not personally.

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Ethics: It Isn't Just Presidents Who Get in Trouble!
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