Ethics Director: If You Have a Doubt, Don’t Do It
By Krista Rinehart, CSG Toll Fellowship Program Director
In some ways, Carol Carson was born to be a leader.
“I’m the oldest of six children, so I think I’ve always been a leader,” said Carson, who serves as the executive director of the Connecticut Office of State Ethics and is a 2011 Henry Toll Fellow.
But being thrust into a leadership position from an early age didn’t automatically equate into a straight shot to leadership as an adult. Carson didn’t take the traditional path of many state officials—high school, college and maybe even graduate or law school. Instead, Carson went to college later in life after honing her leadership skills while raising her children.
“When my children were young, I volunteered to take the job of finding enrichment programs for the school,” said Carson. “Over the next few years, working with representatives from the other schools in town and from the library, I organized an annual town-wide Authors Day that included authors at the four elementary schools, the middle school and the high school, as well as two authors at the library.”
After she finished college in her 30s, Carson took a job as a reporter covering local government, where many of her stories were about ethics violations. Covering the beat was the gateway for her first government job as an investigator with the Massachusetts State Ethics Commission. Since then, Carson has built a career dedicated to educating state officials on the importance of ethics rules and how to follow them.
“I have worked with very smart, committed people doing something that matters,” she said. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
At a time when public opinion of elected officials in general is at an all-time low, Carson said education and leadership in the states are the keys to improving public opinion through cleaner ethics records.
“More education results in increases in both advice requests and complaints,” said Carson. “When people know what the rules are, they try to obey them themselves and they want others to obey them as well.”
Carson stressed that ethics offices like hers are a very important resource for state officials. Carson ends her training sessions in Connecticut with a very important piece of advice—call and ask the ethics office. In addition to this golden rule, Carson shared four benchmarks to help officials judge if an activity is ethical:
When in doubt, don’t do it.
If you will have to explain and answer questions when the story breaks in the media, don’t do it.
Ask yourself what you would think if a colleague did the same thing.
If you are going to have a hard time telling your mother what you did, don’t do it.
While education is very effective in improving official behavior, Carson has found little substitutes for leading by example.
“The importance of leadership embracing ethics rules can’t be overstated,” said Carson. She has conducted hundreds of ethics trainings. ”In my experience, an organization is far less likely to have employees with ethics violations when leaders attend the training, too. Their presence conveys the message that ethics is important in a way that can be more powerful than the content of the training itself.”
This concept of leadership by example is one that has impacted Carson throughout her life. She credits an aunt and early bosses in Massachusetts with shaping her leadership style through their examples.
“My Aunt Mary taught me that it’s the people that matter,” said Carson. “When you walked into her house, she made you feel like the most important person in the world.
Two Massachusetts bosses, Stephanie Lovell and Peter Sturges, also inspired her. “They both brought toughness and resolve—combined with fairness, empathy and common sense—to their positions.”
Carson said it is the people, not the power or the politics, that matter.
“So in my leadership,” she said, “I try to keep the people in mind and to embody the toughness and resolve combined with fairness, empathy and common sense that the leaders I worked with demonstrated.”