AN OVERVIEW “Conduct yourself in a professional, ethical manner.” You should understand the reasons why this is so important—school nutrition operators are stewards of public funds and often under scrutiny from multiple sources. But what does it mean to act “in an ethical manner”? Isn’t this simply a given? Aren’t we already above reproach when it comes to ethical behaviors? Maybe, maybe not. If you simply take ethics for granted, without assessment and discussion, you may be surprised to learn that some of your actions or activities could be challenged by others as being unethical, usually despite your best intentions. The vast majority of school nutrition professionals are, at their core, ethical employees, striving to do what’s right. Only a handful of truly rotten apples in this business intentionally set out to do harm or take unfair advantage for their personal benefit. Still, good intentions are only one part of the ethical equation. Before you dig into a self-assessment of your on-the-job behaviors, let’s work together to try to understand this complicated—and often vague—concept. What does ethics mean? Does it mean something different to you than to your supervisor? A coworker? Your colleague? A parent? On the “RIGHT” TRACK » Barry Sackin, SNS Consultant, B. Sackin Associates, Inc. Murietta, California I have delivered presentations on ethics in school foodservice purchasing a half-dozen times or so and am a member of SNA’s Procurement Ethics Task Force, so this is an area I have some expertise in. » Benign Ignorance School foodservice is very cloistered. Unlike other foodservice segments, our relationships—particularly with vendors—are much closer; we’re more of a family. People’s behaviors are not as hands-off or distant as they tend to be in other segments. It’s not difficult to take advantage—inadvertently or intentionally—of such relationships. When I worked for a vendor, I remember one large-district director who was notorious for selecting the most expensive restaurant in town whenever one of her vendors was picking up the check. Even I would do some things as a district director that I didn’t think twice about then, but now know are actually unethical. (Nothing truly bad, though!) I remember another social occasion in which a mix of operators and vendors were enjoying a sailboat trip. It was a fun day, until I overheard an assistant director from a medium-sized district turn to a broker and ask, “By the way, remember those gifts you were going to get me for my staff Christmas party?” My bells were ringing, but this person’s were not, as they clearly had no idea that what they were asking was unethical—and unreasonable. I truly believe that most incidents like these are benign ignorance. The people involved are unaware of these ethical conundrums. Remember: Everything that comes out of a vendor’s pocket—lunch or dinner, a gift card for your staff, whatever it is—is not free. You’re still paying for it, directly or indirectly. It may be “part of the company’s marketing budget,” but that is still a budget line that ultimately effects the price charged to the customer. Most school nutrition professionals don’t think about that. » Why prioritize ethics education? A now-retired state agency director who is a friend used to say that his worst nightmare was finding out about a problem in one of his schools through a headline in the city paper. I recall hearing another story of a group of cafeteria workers who went to a Hooters restaurant for dinner one night during an SNA Annual National Conference. There’s nothing wrong with the restaurant—they have good chicken wings! But when the group turned in the receipt for the meal, it found its way to a local reporter. Suddenly, there was a headline about school district funds being used to purchase a meal at Hooters. This is less of an ethical illustration as much as a public awareness one, but the consequence is the same. How will your behaviors be perceived? This goes back to one of the most basic ethical quagmires. Going out to a lunch when a vendor picks up the check likely has absolutely zero impact on your purchasing decisions—but the perception that it might be an influence is what can cause a problem. Remember, in school foodservice, we’re using public funds; federal, state or local dollars are being spent. The perception that those monies are being used in connection with an ethical lapse—and, worse, that an individual is personally benefitting as a result—can lead to serious consequences. Frequently, the mere perception of wrongdoing is worse than any actual wrongdoing. “I KNOW IT WHEN I SEE IT” Back in 1968, Raymond C. Baumhart, who is considered an authority on ethics, published An Honest Profit, What Businessmen Say About Ethics in Business. During the research for this book, Baumhart interviewed businessmen and asked them to define ethics. He documented the most common responses, which remain popular today. The first response tends to be: “Ethics consists of the standards our society accepts.” But rarely does society agree 100% on any topic. Indeed, different factions are continually at odds over priorities. For example, affordable healthcare and a clean environment are top priorities for some, while others believe that a strong defense and a balanced budget should take precedence. Therefore, we can see that “ethics” and “what is accepted by societal standards” are not the same. The second common response is: “Ethics has to do with my religion and religious beliefs.” Many religions have high ethical standards, but ethics and religious beliefs are not the same thing. If they were, only religious people would be ethical. Ethics applies to all people, whether they are religious or not. An example of this would be that people of varying religions, as well as atheists, can come to the same ethical conclusions. For instance, if you had someone of the Buddhist faith, the Christian faith and someone with no religious beliefs, they can all three behave ethically and make ethical decisions. Our third common response is, “Ethics has to do with what my instincts tell me is right or wrong.” But being ethical is not the same as following your feelings. Someone following their feelings may withdraw from doing what is right. When faced with an ethical situation, you may actually shy away from getting involved, from “making waves.” We cannot depend on our feelings to guide our ethics and ethical behavior. For our purposes, a straight-forward definition of an ethical dilemma may be the best way to look at this topic. An ethical dilemma is a difficult situation in which there may be no clear answer or easy choice. On the “RIGHT” TRACK » Beth Mincemoyer Egan, RD, SNS Senior Instructor, School of Hospitality Management, Pennsylvania State University University Park, Pennsylvania When I was chair of SNA’s Research Committee, we were given the charge to develop case studies for an ethics training program. We brainstormed ideas for an hour or so, filling sheets and sheets of flip-chart paper. We had no trouble coming up with ethical dilemmas that child nutrition employees at all levels might encounter! We each took on at least one assignment to develop—and they just rolled in. Members of SNA’s Professional Development and Nutrition Committees also contributed many scenarios based on real-life experiences. I had some ethics education during my undergraduate program, and I teach some ethics as a university professor, so I wasn’t too surprised by the specific scenarios—but maybe by the sheer number that we generated in a very short period of time. » Room for Improvement I’m not the best person to assess the state of ethics in the school nutrition workplace, since I’m at a university and not working in a district right now. But my overall feelings are that most school nutrition [operators] really try to do the right thing. They care about kids and their programs, and if they are breaking ethics “rules,” it’s mostly because they haven’t been educated in this area. They do things the way they’ve always been done, so to speak, so they think they are doing it right. This is a common misperception. Child nutrition programs are so heavily regulated at the state and federal level, which makes it a bit easier to know what’s right and wrong in a number of areas, such as procurement. Nevertheless, ethics comes into play with many decisions dealing with money and people. We still have plenty to think about. If I were still a district director, I would be rethinking “perks” from vendors, such as dinners or other events, free samples and so on. Also, I think there’s ethics education needed around social media use. Many people are so active and don’t realize the ethical dilemmas they may be stepping into or putting others in. I definitely reassessed my own social media behaviors after working on this project. I try to be careful about the photos I post, particularly of professional colleagues and I stay aware of the information that is on my personal pages. » Now Is the Time We must be good stewards of the federal, state and local dollars that support our programs, as well as payments made by families. Our programs must be transparent in terms of open and fair competition in purchasing, but also in regard to dealing with a student’s meal status, as well as employee policies and behaviors. SNA is developing a great training program introducing ethics and delving more deeply into the ethical dilemmas that may arise. I hope our members—and non-members, too—will take advantage of this important and valuable resource provided by their professional association. LIVE BY A “CODE” We’ve defined what ethics is not. So, how do you determine what it is? You start by agreeing that ethics represents the general rules or the overall standards that are expected in the workplace. These rules and standards are communicated to employees and staff through a professional Code of Ethics, which is developed to help guide appropriate behavior. A Code of Ethics clarifies the team’s mission, values and principles, linking these with standards of acceptable, professional behavior. Why are your ethical behaviors so important? They represent how you are seen or perceived every day—how you come across as an individual, as a professional, as a member of a team. A Code is written to establish expectations among all employees. It serves as a reminder that everything you do should reflect positively on you, your school meal operation, the school site, the district and your team. A Code of Ethics can be written for an individual school site, but it’s more likely that one would be developed to apply to the entire school nutrition operation, covering all employees at all sites. In some communities, the district might have an umbrella-type Code, with specific sections that address the unique activities of a particular area or department. In general, a business organization’s Code of Ethics might begin with a mission or value statement, followed by a declaration of a commitment to honesty and fairness in employee interactions with vendors, customers and coworkers. Beyond those elements, a Code of Ethics might range from a broad list of principles to specific policies and detailed rules regarding particular business activities—always linking back to the organization’s values. Managers and employees are charged with upholding the standards set forth in the document, including compliance with regulations and laws. This includes accepting personal responsibility and the consequences for Code violations. A Code of Ethics also might feature a stated approach for addressing ethical breaches. This could be an open-door policy to encourage concerned whistle-blowers or a secure process for ensuring anonymous disclosures. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to view an example of one California school nutrition department’s Code of Ethics. Stephanie Bruce, director of nutrition services for Palm Springs Unified School District, shares details and advice about the collaborative approach she undertook to convene a team and develop that document. On the “RIGHT” TRACK » Sandy Curwood, PhD, RDN Director, Office of School Nutrition Programs, Virginia Department of Education Richmond, Virginia I think school nutrition professionals are, in general, very ethical. They care deeply about protecting taxpayer dollars and running their programs with integrity. The challenge, I believe, is a lack of awareness or training as to what “ethics” means. It’s up to us to exercise an abundance of caution. My mom used to say to me, “If you wouldn’t want to see your name attached to it on the front page of the newspaper, maybe you shouldn’t do it.” I was honored to participate on the Procurement Ethics Task Force. Not only do I think it’s extremely valuable to champion this initiative, but I had a great opportunity to hear vendors’ concerns around ethics and the challenges they face—I don’t get the chance to hear that viewpoint much at the state agency. Also, I have my own experiences as a former district director, although now at the state level, my perspective is a little different. Sometimes people just don’t understand that the state agency’s job is to oversee the program, applying rules provided to us by USDA. We don’t have a lot of discretion, either! Now, we are going to offer a workshop for vendors, as well as school nutrition professionals, at the Virginia SNA conference in October. We’ll use a lot of materials developed by SNA—they are great resources, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. » Timely Takeaways The area that was always muddy for me was going to a conference where a vendor wanted to buy you dinner or something like that. My old rule of thumb about receiving such gifts was, “If it’s perishable, it’s okay,” like a box of chocolates or a meal. Now, my rule is, “If it’s not available to everyone at the conference, then I can’t participate.” That really has been my reevaluation for my own behavior and what I convey to my staff. Ethics really applies to everything we do. As a representative of the public school nutrition program, you’re always “on.” I don’t know how many times I’ve been recognized outside of my office. You better be doing the right thing all the time, because someone is always watching! Be respectful of vendors, as you expect them to be to you. Educate them about your needs—but don’t ask them for anything beyond the scope of your RFP or bid. Those are the tools you should use for all communications about what you want and expect. On the “RIGHT” TRACK » Jeanne Pierce, SNS Director, Exeter Region Cooperative School District Exeter, New Hampshire I believe we all want to do what we believe is ethically right, but it might not be. When you start reviewing case studies, it makes you question some of your behaviors. I was excited to be part of the group reviewing SNA’s new training program, because I think it’s a cutting-edge topic and I’m glad to be helping members with something they face every day. Ethics training goes across all levels of school nutrition positions; whether you’re the director, the cook or the dishwasher, ethics is part of everyone’s workplace and everyday life. » Eye-opening Reflections In reviewing the program, I found myself redefining the difference between morals and ethics. Our group came from different backgrounds and parts of the country. We had wonderful discussions and it was eye-opening to see how different our perceptions were. You might think a certain behavior or activity is okay, but someone else might think it’s unethical. We began to realize that if we were having difficulties in addressing the scenarios, then this class is truly going to be important. But, in working together, we respected each other’s views and opinions—and learned a lot from each other. It’s going to be a really good training program. It’s the first step in a conversation that needs to keep going forward. » Beyond Procurement Ethics is in every aspect of a school nutrition department. Purchasing is the hot button, because it involves major financial decisions. But your hiring practices also may need an ethical review, or how your HR staff ethically handles disciplinary action and so on. Every day, in the workplace and in our personal life, we face ethical questions and may not even know it until someone says something that triggers awareness or you take a class like the one SNA is developing. In this age of smartphone cameras, everything we do may be scrutinized, but many staff members don’t get the type of training they need to understand ethical parameters. SNA’s going to open the door for so many people. Not only will they enjoy this interesting class, but they will have “Wow, I didn’t know that” realizations. We all want to have good ethics; I really believe this. School nutrition professionals are in this business for the good of the children—so we want to do what is right. COMMON MISBEHAVIORS A few years ago, the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics Resource Center (ERC) conducted a survey and discovered that of 120 million people working in the United States, almost half acknowledged that they have personally witnessed some type of unethical behavior in the workplace. The most prevalent examples follow: » Misuse of company time. This ranges from habitual tardiness to altering timesheets to conspiring with others to “cover” for absences, late arrivals, extended breaks, early departures and so on. » Abusive behavior. This might take the form of an abuse of power or position, such as asking an employee to run personal errands or assigning tasks well beyond the scope of the position description. It might involve explosive anger and inappropriate language. It’s not always directed downward, either. Abusive behavior can involve bullying and disrespecting coworkers, customers, parents, delivery personnel, etc. » Theft. Theft can range from stealing cash and embezzling funds to taking others’ personal belongings. It also can be defined as collecting office supplies, making long-distance calls and using postal services, copiers and printers for personal tasks. In a school cafeteria setting, it might involve stealing food and consuming leftovers. » Lying. This can mean telling an untruth to another individual or falsifying documentation. Even well-intentioned “white lies” can blow up if discovered, sowing seeds of distrust. » Violating the organization’s Internet policies. While many organizations offer some flexibility to employees for personal use of email, minor web research and social media check-ins, they tend to draw the line at allowing video games, online gambling, entertainment streaming, shopping and, of course, pornography. On the “RIGHT” TRACK » Scott Ziobrowski Director of Foodservice, Hilton Central School District, Hilton, New York I was very excited and honored to have been asked to serve on SNA’s Procurement Ethics Task Force. I have a diverse background in procurement and thought that my knowledge and experience in foodservice would be a welcome addition to the group. I believe the purchasing standards and guidelines in my district are more stringent than many of those at the state or national levels. We have several layers of checks and balances, working off of a cooperative bid for most major purchases in school nutrition. And I feel my work on the Task Force reinforced that I’m doing things in the right manner. » Primo Priority Ethics training is really that important, especially for new school foodservice directors who may not have the same exposure to purchasing requirements and standards in previous positions. Training can offer guidance that they can’t get anywhere else. It also may benefit industry members in how they need to work within school requirements. There’s one serious misconception about ethics in school nutrition, however; and that is the perception that there can be enough training and resources available on this topic. POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT Discussions about ethical conduct often focus on areas where mistakes have been made—regardless of good or ill intent. But it’s also important to take advantage of a focus on ethics to encourage positive behaviors. Some of these examples may seem like common sense, but we know that common sense often seems anything but common! Thus, it’s helpful to ensure that everyone on the team is prioritizing the same standards of personal conduct. Adhere to Workplace Policies. Does everyone receive an employee manual when they are hired? Does staff orientation include a review of policies relating to behavior and expectations? Are various policies revisited on a regular basis during inservice training, manager meetings or other periodic employee gatherings? From human resources rules to the dress code, taking these seriously is the first step in demonstrating ethical behavior. Be a Team Player. Consistently recognizing the need and importance of working well with others—no diva attitude, please!—is another example of good ethical behavior. Avoid Gossip. It can be tough to resist, but your better angels know that it’s unkind and unattractive to be focused on the misfortunes of others. Be Accountable for Mistakes. No one is perfect—not even you. Own up to errors without trying to justify why they happen or shift blame. Acknowledge that you understand what happened so you can avoid a repeated incident, apologize and move on. Show Respect. Of course, you shouldn’t be dismissive of another individual, but it’s also important to demonstrate respect for rules, policies and processes. You may not understand them. You may not like them. But following instructions, without resistance or complaint, is another example of ethical behavior. Keep Your Promises. At SNA’s 2017 Annual National Conference (ANC) in Atlanta, Keynote Speaker Alex Sheen stirred the audience with his initiative to change the world by reminding others to keep their word. The “because I said I would” social movement is the epitome of ethical behavior. There’s one other important way to demonstrate ethical behavior: Report Ethical Violations. This can be hard, especially when team members share a family-esque bond. After all, you don’t want someone else to get in trouble, nor do you want to be seen as a tattle-tale who cannot be trusted. But this is where you must put ethics first. What are the consequences if you don’t report unethical behavior to the operation or to that individual? Or to you? If the breach in ethics is discovered by someone else, it could be damaging to the reputation of the operation or the profession. You could be considered complicit in your silence. People could lose their jobs. Be a role model and say something when you are troubled by conduct that is unbecoming of the team or out of line with an official Code of Ethics. This month’s SN web extras include a list of common excuses for unethical behavior—and some of these apply to the failure to report such conduct, as well. “Everybody does it.” “Who am I to judge?” “Nobody was hurt.” Sound familiar? Head online to www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to discover ways to address such excuses. TO YOUR CREDIT Behaving ethically has many benefits, for your school and district, as well as for you as an individual. It promotes a strong public image and helps to develop an appropriate attitude to compliance with rules, regulations and the law. Ethical behavior also makes the best use of resources. Money, time and effort are put into productive activities, rather than diverted for questionable purposes or personal gain. It helps to maintain quality. Ethical behavior boosts morale and promotes teamwork. Finally, it can be credited with being the basis for long-term success—for your workplace team and for you. On the “RIGHT” TRACK » Shannon Gleave, RDN, SNS Director of Food & Nutrition, Glendale Elementary School District, Glendale, Arizona I am really excited that SNA is focused on ethics training. I’m a registered dietitian and, in that credentialing program, there is a piece that requires ethics training. I believe SNA should go down the same road and include this in the School Nutrition Specialist (SNS) credentialing program. I think it’s important to go through ethics training at least once every five years. » Why Now? School nutrition is always in the media. Ethics needs to be an important priority. In fact, everyone should be reviewing standards and codes about ethics at least every other year. It helps you get back to understanding “What are we here for? Why are we here?” So much has changed in school nutrition regulations and policies over the last few years. It’s good that we have ethics training to help guide us to make sure we’re making the right decisions. What could have been the norm in the past is vastly different now. If you don’t have good ethics, you can’t make good decisions. And there are areas you wouldn’t have even thought of 10 years ago, like social media. There are ethics involved in that—you could be put in a situation that could end up being unethical, so you need to be careful. There’s also ethics in customer service: Do unto others as you would have done to yourself. Sometimes, people think ethics is only related to purchasing, but it’s really about your beliefs and the values you hold. These are your core ethics. » Everyone’s Priority We’re all professionals, and we work hard to be recognized as such. We need to abide by personal and professional ethics—it’s important to the integrity of school nutrition. It’s easy for people at different job levels to look at certain training and think, “Oh, this is for the boss.” But ethics are for everybody—not just for supervisors. It’s for every single employee. It’s applicable to every person who works in child nutrition. On the “RIGHT” TRACK » Timikel Sharpe Executive Director of School Nutrition Bibb County School District, Macon, Georgia I believe that the leadership and staff working in the many child nutrition kitchens and offices meet ethical standards. But working on the ethics training development team highlighted the need, today more than ever, to flush out how practices that have been done a certain way as a practice should be questioned. When reading regulations, procedures and process information, there can be a lot of gray. Several things that are ingrained in the processes of all school nutrition operations may not be considered 100% ethical—even though the intent is 100%. » Surprising Scenarios There were so many scenarios that we reviewed for the “What Should You Do” training course. It was difficult to choose which ones were best to use. One that surprised—and engaged—everyone was about the acceptance and use of gift cards from vendors (see page 40). Overall, though, I didn’t need to reassess many of my own behaviors. At the time, I worked in a school district where there were strict ethics guidelines about the dollar values of gifts or [sponsored] travel. When receiving product purchase points or gift cards, these would be collected together and used to purchase items that could be used as rewards and incentives during a staff orientation or inservice training. » Timely Training In school nutrition, we are fiduciaries working on behalf of federal, state and local governments. We need to make sure that our reputations as program leaders—and Association leaders—is stellar. I encourage everyone to attend either a live training or take SNA’s ethics online training as soon as it is launched—you won’t be sorry. On the “RIGHT” TRACK » Sandra Voss, SNS Foodservice Director, Marquardt School District 15, Glendale Heights, Illinois Overall, I believe school nutrition professionals are in tune with proper ethics. But ethical decision-making occurs quite often, so reminders of proper ethical responses are always of value. I’m excited SNA is planning to offer a training course on this subject. I think it would benefit not only school nutrition professionals, but other district employees, as well. It’s a common misperception that ethics only relates to procurement and purchasing. In fact, so many aspects of our jobs require ethical behaviors. For example, in helping to develop the course, I was reminded of many personnel matters that require ethical thinking in making sound and fair decisions. That’s why this training is so important, especially for many smaller districts that don’t have legal or human resources support when trying to handle difficult situations. This course has provided me with a great understanding of ethics; I feel comfortable helping to coach peers in making better ethical decisions. » Lead to Succeed I would recommend SNA’s What Should You Do? ethics training programming to anyone in a leadership position. I feel that you cannot be a successful leader without good ethics. You influence all those around you—students, staff members and other district leaders—and you should lead by example and make ethics a top priority in your mind when making decisions. The different pieces of SNA’s ethics training really make you think, reliving your experiences and evaluating how you can move forward as a leader and a school nutrition professional with better ethical decision-making skills. On the “RIGHT” TRACK » Stephanie Bruce Director of Nutrition Services, Palm Springs Unified School District Palm Springs, California I was honored to be asked to serve on SNA’s Procurement Ethics Task Force. I’ve been doing this job for almost 20 years, and I’m very conscious of how I deal with vendors and how I go through my procurement processes. I also teach procurement to help new directors understand the realities of buying for a federally funded program. I’m so glad that SNA is taking on this challenge, because it’s multi-faceted. In addition to the rules we need to follow, there are also behaviors. Early on and for years, I didn’t think anything about going to lunch with a vendor, or going to a conference and participating in a contest. It didn’t “click” that these things could potentially be unethical. Focusing on ethics helped me re-train my brain. It made me look back at everything! I make sure there’s full transparency in whatever I do. I used to be able to make decisions all by myself and move forward, but now I make sure I discuss them with my boss and cabinet and the school board first. » Complex Relationships Because we’re such a tight-knit industry, the people we do business with become our friends. Ethics becomes about trying to draw a line between the personal and the professional relationship. In a district I used to work for, our purchasing director began dating a vendor that the district—including me, too—did business with. Once the relationship began, she went straight to the board to let them know what was happening, and then recused herself from professional dealings with that vendor going forward. That was the right way to do it! (They eventually got married and have a wonderful life together!) But I’ve also seen people who have lost jobs, because they would do business with a relative without going through proper disclosure practices. It’s about making sure that everyone is treated fairly and equitably. In sitting on the Task Force, I’m surprised by how little most vendors understand about the ethics of working with a federal program. And I’m surprised by how many operators still ask for favors from vendors. » Someone’s Watching School nutrition is more scrutinized today than ever before in the entire history of the program. It continues to be a topic of conversation not just in school communities, but in governments at the local, state and federal levels. It’s important that we each take a look at our operations and make sure we are using taxpayer money in a manner that’s appropriate—advice for myself, too. I want to make sure the money that I pay in taxes is used correctly. NEW ETHICS TRAINING COURSE ON ITS WAY SNA is putting the final touches on a brand-new training course designed to help school nutrition teams understand workplace ethics and improve their own ethical behaviors. What Should You Do: Ethical Decision-Making in School Nutrition has been developed as a self-paced online course that will reinforce the importance of ethics and the factors that influence ethical decision-making. The course is being designed as an introductory-level ethics course to help guide school nutrition professionals with a process to recognize and address ethical dilemmas in the workplace. It is expected to be available early in 2018. SNA continues to explore other opportunities to include ethics training in its professional development programming. Procurement ethics will be a key part of the agenda for the 2018 School Nutrition Industry Conference in New Orleans in January and a pre-conference workshop on ethics is expected to be offered at the 2018 Annual National Conference in Las Vegas next summer. BONUS WEB CONTENT Got Ethics in the Workplace? Head online for more resources to help your team address this important topic, from writing your own Code of Ethics to countering common excuses used to justify poor choices. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonus to access.
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