The NCSL Blog


By Holly South

Los Angeles—Protecting the legislative institution requires ethical decision-making by those who work in the legislature.

Marianne Jennings; photo by Berkeley TeateLegislative staff need to be objective, credible and immune to political pressure. Marianne Jennings, emeritus professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University, was on hand at the Legislative Staff Breakfast at last week’s NCSL Legislative Summit to highlight what she termed the “danger spots” and offer strategies for navigating ethical dilemmas.

Jennings is convinced that people are aware as soon as they cross an ethical line. They may use “mental gymnastics to make it seem like it’s OK,” but most know exactly what they’ve done. Beware of that first step over the line, she cautioned. “Nobody wakes up one day and decides to embezzle $100,000, she said. We start with the copy machine, the postage meter, the blending of campaign and public funds.”

Asking “When does stealing become stealing and lying become lying?” she emphasized that the first step is usually one that’s easy to justify. She noted several minor infractions that her students have admitted to committing: doing their child’s homework, taking the HOV lane when they were alone in the car, lying about being sick to get out of work. But after that initial decision to cross the line, it becomes easier and easier to rationalize additional steps: “The first little lie paves the way,” she said.

There’s a scientific basis for this. Jennings discussed research studying how the brain responds to lying. “The first one provokes a big response in brain regions [but] the 10th time does not, she said. That response [to that lie] is not that high. As the number of lies increases, the brain responds less and less to each lie.

Jennings admited that even an ethics professor is vulnerable to these rationalizations, and urged the audience to keep the following principles in mind:

  • Don’t underestimate the probability of the truth coming out.
  • Don’t overestimate your ability to manage the truth.
  • The longer it takes for the truth to come out, the worse the fallout for the liar.

To avoid facing this inevitable fallout, Jennings recommended a conscious daily exercise of ethical choices—ask yourself “How would you feel if you were on the other side?”—and offered the following guidance:

Spend other people’s money as if it were your own.

Watch out for jumbled interests or conflicts of interest. “You’re not unethical because you have conflicts; the unethical part results from not managing them properly.” Either don’t do it or disclose it—it’s much worse if the media finds out first.

If you see something, say something. Ethical lapses constituting a scandal have “usually been going on a long time before they’re ever reported.” The Wells Fargo scandal was widely known among employees, “one of those situations that was long-percolating.” But because of the organization’s culture, employees were unwilling to report the wrongdoing. They were punished if they did, but rewarded if they went along with it.

Jennings conceded it’s difficult for an employee to stand up to a powerful person and make the decision to be ethical. Especially if the decision to act otherwise helps their organization—whether it’s Wells Fargo, a sports franchise or a political party—achieve its goals. It’s clearly a common dilemma: Complicit was the 2017 word of the year.

Holly South is a policy specialist in NCSL's Legislative Staff Services Program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.