What Does It Mean to Be an Ethical Supervisor?

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series, Finding the Leader in You, which addresses key concepts in public safety leadership.

When I sat down to write this month’s article on ethics, I tried to envision something a bit unconventional (and more philosophical). People working in public safety generally have unquestionable ethics. Fast-forward a few years after the academy and these same employees work their way into supervisory positions, bringing strong values and ethics with them. So, why do we even need to address the concept of ethics among leaders working in the public safety realm?

The answer is simple—because we are human. Harvard Professor Max Bazerman points out how people sometimes respond differently when confronted with ethical dilemmas. Social scientists, he writes, “have shown that environment and psychological processes can lead us to engage in ethically questionable behavior even if it violates our own values.” This bounded rationality essentially “sees managers as wanting to be rational but influenced by biases and other cognitive limitations that get in the way.”

The point is that even with the grandest of intentions, the human condition and noise of the day can sometimes create barriers that impact our ability to make ethical decisions when it comes to leading those under our charge.

What Is Supervisory Ethics?

Even though it was decades ago, I remember one wise academy instructor telling our class that ethics “is what you do when no one is around.” The same instructor posed a simple question to the class: “If your son or daughter were watching over your shoulder, would you make the same decision or do the same thing?”

Those simple phrases stuck with me over time and illustrate the importance of making good decisions, even when we don’t have an audience. One definition of ethical leadership is “the process of influencing employees through values, principles and beliefs that extensively border on the accepted norms in the organizational behaviors.” Other definitions go further, noting how ethical leadership “is directed by respect for ethical beliefs and values and for the dignity and rights of others.”

As you become a leader, it’s important not to lose sight of how your individual ethics can impact those around you.

We clearly understand this from a public service standpoint. In fact, derivatives of these two definitions are commonly inferred within the oath of office or our agency mission statements. But what about leadership ethics within the supervisor-subordinate context? Do we sometimes take our own people for granted, and can our motives and intentions sometimes be brought into question?

Ethics in the Workplace

We’ve all seen good leaders who empowered their people, led by example, and leveraged the abilities of subordinates to accomplish organizational goals and objectives. Conversely, we’ve witnessed weak leaders who made decisions based on what was easy, popular, or even in that leader’s own best interest. Often, these decisions are considered unethical since they betray the subordinate’s trust and faith in leadership.

While conducting research for this article, I came across an interesting perspective worthy of consideration because the very nature of public safety often requires decisions made in fractions of a second. Bazerman, the Harvard professor noted above, outlines two very different modes of decision-making: System 1 and System 2. We make most of our decisions using System 1, an intuitive process that is fast, automatic, effortless, and emotional. System 2 requires more deliberative thinking, which is slower, conscious, effortful, and logical. Humans are much closer to rationality when using System 2, but how often are we in situations where timing negates the use of System 2 logic? Could some leaders exhibit what appear as questionable ethics even if their motives and intentions are on the right track?

Conflict can also arise between the supervisor and subordinate when a leader’s motives appear to be more in line with agency expectations rather than the employee’s expectations. In the International Journal of Business and Management, Alshammari et al note how “the dimension of ethical leadership should focus on moral values and fairness in decision making while at the same time considering the impact such decisions will have on the organization.” In other words, agency leaders must consider the impact of their decisions within the workplace; however, to avoid the perception of questionable loyalty or ethics, it’s incumbent on leaders to regularly communicate with subordinates so there is clear understanding. The authors also suggest that “ethical leaders participate in creating the right environment and the necessary condition for a culture of success, transparency and accountability”—a condition that fosters moral development within the workforce and enhances productivity.

Conflict can also arise between the supervisor and subordinate when a leader’s motives appear to be more in line with agency expectations rather than the employee’s expectations.

Interestingly, research has shown how strong ethics among leaders in the workplace can not only enhance employee productivity, but create an environment where employees are more adaptable to change. Writing in the Frontiers of Psychology, Metwally et al note how “ethical leadership fosters quality social exchange relationships and perceptions of a sense of oneness with the leader and/or the unit or organization that the leader represents.” The researchers also note five key value dimensions that naturally evolve within the workplace:

  1. Change management – employees are better equipped for change and more adaptable
  2. Goal achievement – everyone works together to accomplish organizational objectives
  3. Coordinated teamwork – working together as a team to accomplish the mission
  4. Customer orientation – enhanced customer service
  5. Shared values and beliefs – synergy between leadership and subordinates

Why Ethics Matter

Thinking back to what drew you to this career in the first place, it likely had to do with being part of something bigger than yourself. That shouldn’t change just because stripes, bars, or stars are added to the equation. As Alshammari et al point out, “the qualities of an ethical leader play a leading role in developing the transformational goal of leadership concerned with expressing the mission of the organization and laying the necessary foundation for the policies, strategies and procedures for leadership.” Bazerman reminds us that “people follow the behavior of others, particularly those in positions of power and prestige.” Think about the impact professional athletes and movie stars have on people. You have the same influence among your colleagues with the norms you set.

Ethics also matter when it comes to:

  • Career Survival –Bad employees typically don’t make it until retirement; rather, they continue to progress to levels of deviance that lead to severe disciplinary actions, dismissal, and sometimes even incarceration.
  • Career Development – Problem employees don’t typically elevate within their careers; instead, they compromise the trust of coworkers, supervisors, the agency, and the community.
  • Media Coverage – Simply put, bad employees make good press and undermine the effectiveness of the entire public service community.
  • Community View of Agency – How well an agency polices itself is scrutinized by the community. Recruiting efforts can become undermined with poor community relationships. A lack of trust means the community will avoid contact with members of the organization.
  • In-House Dissension – Bad employees break down morale within the agency and cause resentment toward the chain of command and organizational administration.
  • Peace of Mind – Knowing you are doing the right thing, all the time, provides confidence and reassurance. This is especially important in public safety, where positive outcomes are not always possible, even when we do the right thing.

It’s easy to rationalize any decision and there are many theoretical interpretations of how individuals interact based on various ethical dilemmas. One person may not even consider doing something another wouldn’t think twice about, given the right set of key variables. Like anything else, leadership ethics is based on the leader’s best interpretation of what decision is necessary at that moment in time. Rely on what you know and focus on the interests of others when making decisions. Follow your policy and remain steadfast in your pursuit of organizational goals and objectives. C.W. Von Bergen, professor of Management at Southeastern Oklahoma State University, offers five tips that exemplify supervisory ethics:

  1. Ethical leaders respect others – Respect yourself, those you supervise and those above you. Listen to and respect other points of view.
  2. Ethical leaders serve others – To public safety professionals, servant leadership is second nature.
  3. Ethical leaders are just – Fairness and impartiality are key watchwords; set aside individual bias and keep an open mind.
  4. Ethical leaders are honest – Regular communication is key; remember that when you lie to others, you are essentially demonstrating the will to manipulate your relationship with your subordinates.
  5. Ethical leaders build community – This means selfless service to not only the community, but also your subordinates. Search for goals that are compatible with everyone but still serve the organization’s best interest.

Be Aware of Your Impact

None of this is new information, nor are there any startling revelations to those in public safety. But as you become a leader, it’s important not to lose sight of how your individual ethics can impact those around you. Even with the best intentions, personal ethics can cause conflict in the workplace. Research conducted by Alshammari et al highlights how “the role of ethical leadership in influencing the performance of the employees rests on the pedestal of behavioral motivation, inspiration and individualized consideration.”

In the words of Mayar Ramgir, “Your actions define your character, your words define your wisdom, but your treatment of others defines the real you.”


  1. Bazerman MH. (2020) A New Model for Ethical Leadership. Harvard Business Review. Sep-Oct 2020. Accessed 9/25/21 from: https://hbr.org/2020/09/a-new-model-for-ethical-leadership
  2. Alshammari A, Almutairi N, Fahad Thuwaini S. (2015) Ethical Leadership: The Effect on Employees. International Journal of Business and Management. 10(3)108–116. Accessed 9/25/21 from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Naser-Almutairi-2/publication/276750181_Ethical_Leadership_The_Effect_on_Employees/links/56ee4cd808aea35d5b999ff2/Ethical-Leadership-The-Effect-on-Employees.pdf
  3. Kuligowski K. (2020) How to Be an Ethical Leader: 7 Tips for
    Success. Business News Daily. October 13, 2020. Accessed 9/25/21 from: https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/5537-how-to-be-ethical-leader.html
  4. Metwally D, Ruiz-Palomino P, Metwally M, et al. (2019). How Ethical Leadership Shapes Employees’ Readiness to Change: The Mediating Role of an Organizational Culture of Effectiveness. Frontiers in Psychology. Accessed 9/25/21 from: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02493/full
  5. Von Bergen CW. (2012) Principles of Ethical Leadership. Unpublished manuscript. Accessed 9/25/21 from: http://homepages.se.edu/cvonbergen/files/2012/12/Principles-of-Ethical-Leadership1.pdf
Rex Scism

CAPTAIN REX M. SCISM (Ret.) is a 32-year law enforcement veteran and former director of research and development for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. He also had a successful military career, retiring from the Missouri Army National Guard after 20 years of service. Mr. Scism served as a public safety and private sector consultant and instructor for over 20 years. He formerly served as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Criminal Justice for both Columbia College and the University of Central Missouri, and is a frequent contributor to multiple sources about various public safety topics. Mr. Scism is a graduate of the FBI National Academy’s 249th Session and currently serves as a content developer for Lexipol.

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