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As the Executive Director of Trust Across America, I often find myself discussing the difference between being legal and being ethical. The legal side of the discussion is pretty easy to explain. If you and/or your organization comply with the law, you are meeting your legal requirement. Being ethical- not so easy to describe. It’s going beyond what’s legal to “doing the right thing” and I’ve learned there is no standard for the “right thing.”


In reading today’s headlines, I may have found a perfect case study for legal vs. ethical, right in my own backyard. Talk about not “getting it!” The story has do do with NJ taxpayers paying dozens of school superintendents twice via a paycheck and a pension. It’s called “double-dipping” and it’s perfectly legal. But is it ethical? You can read the full article here.


        The interim superintendent of the Mahwah School District has a $167,000 contract on top of her $131,000 annual pension. She is quoted as saying the following: “I think it’s the way the system is set up,” said Lake. “Greater people than me made that decision, I took advantage of it.”
        Congratulations to you. As the Commander in Chief of a school district you are responsible for the “culture of the corporation.” Just remember what you said the next time a student shows up in your office and uses the excuse that “everyone else was doing it,” or when one of your faculty members chooses to use all their days off, leaving a classroom full of kids with no teacher.  After all, it’s the way the system is set up. And the NJ taxpayers- apparently they don’t factor in to your ethical barometer at all. You just “took advantage of it (them).”
        Finally, thanks for providing me with the perfect case study the next time someone asks me to explain the difference between legal and ethical. Ms. Interim Superintendent you are part of the problem, not part of the solution. Is this how you “role model” education? Is this what you want your legacy to be? What’s your next stop on this unethical gravy train?

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2 Responses to “What’s Legal? What’s Ethical?”

  1. March 3rd, 2013 at 22:09 | #1

    Barbara, growing up in NJ the school pay & pension issues have always been ‘interesting’ to say the least. In fact, the pension was based on the last few years of one’s salary and I don’t know how many folks had their last 3yrs salary dramatically increased so they could get a higher pension – legal? yes. Ethical? No. I’ve also wondered about the issue of moral. Most of the ‘ethical’ issues I’ve seen were better defined as ‘compliant’ but shy of moral (letter of the law vs. spirit of the law) – so I wonder about that difference as well –

  2. March 4th, 2013 at 12:10 | #2

    “Legal doesn’t make it decent”. That’s the quote from “Keeping mum”, an excellent movie (if you like a British sense of humour, that’s it).
    I tend to think that ‘legal’ defines what society in general would like to impose on us, while ‘ethical’ is what the group we identify ourselves with requires from us. Thus they do not have to overlap – and they often do not. Think street gangs: illegal but perfectly within their own ethics. On the other hand, think superintendents: legal but possibly not ethical.
    The question is whether we should strive to make legal==ethical, and I think we simply should not. Legal will be always slower, waking up only to obvious deficiencies. Ethical will be faster but fragmented.
    Which means that there is a space for groups such as this one to go ahead and formulate what is ethical, and why being ethical is good. Not that it will be the only group trying to push its view on ethical, but it may be the group with the best justitfication.
    So, the question: why is it beneficial to be ethical? Why should a superintendent drop a $150,000 yearly gift from taxpayers, knowing that they canot chase him up? Why should a company not to relocate to a tax heaven knowing that it can legally do it?

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