Eye on Ethics: Morals, Ethics and Character

By Jim Stilwell, CMCA, PCAM

When I was the GM/COO at Warner Springs Ranch, a 250-room, member-owned, old-California resort I taught a class to all new employees of Warner Springs Ranch as part of our Academy in which employees learned  what was expected of them as employees, and what they could expect from us as managers. One segment of this instruction dealt with morals, ethics and character. To keep things simple, I defined the principles as follows:

Morals – Knowing right from wrong.
Ethics – Knowing right from wrong, and choosing right.
Character – Knowing right from wrong, and choosing right – even if no one is looking!

All managers face ethics issues on a daily basis. However, because most managers have been brought up “right” and have a good blend of training and experience, the ethics issues seldom rise to the level of a challenge. The “right” thing is automatically done.  There are, however, some cases in which managers wonder, “What should I do?”

May I provide information to one board member without providing it to the others? Some might say this is okay as long as the information was specifically requested by the one director.  However, in this age of e-mail and PDF files don’t play the “knowledge is power” game.  Direct your e-mail with attachments to the director who requested the information, but copy all others.  And while we are discussing e-mail, stay away from “bcc” and beware of the “reply to all” tab.  Improper use may raise ethics issues.  Remember – it only takes a millisecond for an error in judgment to propagate through the Internet and across the world.

Who do I work for? Is it the developer who hired me or is it the HOA? A person may not serve two masters. Although there are some who would argue otherwise, the manager’s obligations of duty, obedience, and loyalty belong to the HOA. It might be a tightrope, but it must be walked.

It’s recall time. Do I support the “A” team or the “B” team? The truth is you support neither, and you support both. Remember, you are the governance expert in the community.  You know how the board works (or how it should work).  You know the rules and bylaws.  You know where the bones are buried.  Your duty is to the Association, its governing documents, and the law. Don’t take sides and don’t offer advice, but do make sure the process is correct.

An owner has made a records request. I know what he wants, but he is requesting the wrong information. Do I help him?  The simple answer is “yes”.   The correct thing is to sit down with the owner and see what the issue is. An owner will sometimes ask for the entire budget document when all he is looking for is your contract. Face it head on. If your documents say he is entitled to information, help him get it.

If you have to think too much about the “right” thing to do, it is probably the wrong thing. If in doubt, seek counsel from your peers or from a professional in the field in question.  Do not be afraid to ask questions of association attorneys.

Jim Stilwell is currently General Manager/COO of Desert Princess Country Club and Resort, an HOA in the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs, CA.  He was formerly GM/COO of Warner Springs Ranch, a historic, 2,500 acre resort, in Back-Country, San Diego County, California. He has 20 years of experience as General Manager of communities in both the public and private sectors following a distinguished career in the Merchant Marine, where he commanded some of the largest and most technically advanced vessels under the U.S. Flag  He also provides consulting services through his own company – YOUR Community Management, LLC

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