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How to Survive as an Executive, Season 2, Episode 4: Navigating Ethical Dilemmas, with Judith Brunet (TRN4-P11)


In this episode of the How to Survive as an Executive podcast, Judith Brunet explains how to navigate the uncertain world of values and ethics, including the value of integrity, transparency and communication when tackling situations and discusses the resources available to support executives.

Duration: 00:13:13
Published: December 7, 2021
Type: Podcast

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How to Survive as an Executive, Season 2, Episode 4: Navigating Ethical Dilemmas, with Judith Brunet

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Transcript: How to Survive as an Executive, Season 2, Episode 4: Navigating Ethical Dilemmas, with Judith Brunet

Judith Brunet: As executives we encounter ethical dilemmas in our professional life almost everyday. It is the way we choose to respond to them that makes a difference.

Annie Therriault: We all take an oath to follow the Values and Ethics Code of the Public Service. This Code is our guide in all our professional activities. But at times, we'll encounter an ethical dilemma that requires us to navigate through grey zones, where the answers are not always clear.  Hello, I'm Annie Therriault. Welcome to How to Survive as an Executive. Today, we are reaching out to Judith Brunet, Ombudsman and Director of the Centre of Values and Ethics at Parks Canada. Ms. Brunet generously shares her advice on how to navigate the uncertain world of values and ethics. I invite you to listen and get reassurance that there is support available when we face challenges as EXs. 

Annie Therriault: Judith Brunet, welcome and thank you for accepting our invitation.

Judith Brunet: Thank you, Annie. Thank you for having me.

Annie Therriault: It's a great pleasure to talk today about values and ethics. It's more of a delicate topic, one we have not touched on yet. And sometimes, as an executive, we go through all sorts of difficult things, or we have some challenges, and sometimes we don't really link that to values and ethics, but they could really qualify as being in that bucket, I would imagine. So for example, I know most of us, at some point, have been in a situation where there was a decision made at the management table, and we thought we were OK with this. But inside of us we think, oh, this is really not what I wish we would have ended up with. And now I need to defend this to my staff and convince the employees that's the way to go although I'm not convinced myself. How do I approach that? How do I defend this position? Or sometimes it's about  navigating very difficult situations, and we're not sure where it stands, and our values could be hurt. So I'm sure that in your role as an ombuds, you've heard a lot of those testimonials before. I can't be the first one to come up with situations like this one.

Judith Brunet: No, you're right, Annie. Absolutely. As executives, we encounter ethical dilemmas in our professional life almost every day. It is the way we choose to respond to them that makes the difference. Some ethical questions have quick, straightforward answers that we can deal with almost instantly. Things are clearly right or wrong. It's when we're faced with decisions that are grey, very grey, that we are confronted with our personal values and beliefs and our responsibility as a public servant and as an executive that we are quite challenged.

Annie Therriault: Mm-hmm.

Judith Brunet: And I do think that the higher we are in the hierarchy, the more conflicting it can be and the more ethical dilemmas actually have this ability and impact on others.

You also mentioned like, disagreement with the decision at the management table and, while, it is so common to feel caught between a rock and a hard place.

Annie Therriault: Mm-hmm.

Judith Brunet: as an executive, between the team we lead and the management table we sit on. So that is quite challenging, to figure out how to balance our identity, our culture, our community and our role as a public servant. That's where, actually, we are quite challenged.

Annie Therriault: Exactly. So it's not always easy to be in that situation. And this is where I was seeing myself sometimes, caught in this sandwich, and you're caught in the middle, and there's no way out of there. And you have the feeling this could compromise your integrity. And that also has a big impact on your leadership. So how can we handle that kind of situation? Do you have, maybe, advice for us on that?

Judith Brunet: Mm-hmm. Absolutely. I think it's very important to be honest, to call a spade a spade. Don't undersell it or oversell it.

Annie Therriault: Mm-hmm.

Judith Brunet: You can also give attention to the process in which the decision came to that you don't necessarily have to defend the decision itself, but you can defend the process—that was fair and transparent—to come to that decision. I had, in my career, some superiors that actually almost transformed themselves into cheerleaders, like, from the morning to the afternoon.

Annie Therriault: [laughs]

Judith Brunet: We knew they didn't like the decision. And then they come back and they feel that they have to be the cheerleader of the decision. And actually, that's not good for integrity and how you're perceived by your team. It will have an impact. So it's better to be honest, to be transparent. You still need to be professional.

Judith Brunet: One thing that I think we sometimes underestimate as executives is the impact, on reputation, of perceived conflict of interest.

Annie Therriault: Mmm.

Judith Brunet: So we kind of know how to deal with real and potential conflicts of interest, but we often underestimate perceived ones, because we know that we have checked all the boxes. We have acted with the utmost integrity. We have followed the code of values and ethics, the legislation, the policies. So we do feel that things are right. Things are where they're supposed to be. Well, that does not mean that you cannot be perceived as being in a conflict of interest. And that's where communication is key. You need to explain and communicate clearly the process by which decisions were made. If not, it's only human nature to fill the gap in the communication with its own narrative.

Annie Therriault: Mmm, absolutely. But sometimes we are pulled in different directions. Sometimes there are many contexts we feel caught in. And in this situation there can be an impact on how we're perceived by those around us. So how do we repair that image, once it has been damaged by a situation like that?

Judith Brunet: Mm-hmm, absolutely. So a couple of things. When you're saying repair, I'm thinking that...keep in mind that everyone makes mistakes. We're only human. And in an executive role, sometimes we feel as though we cannot show that we make mistakes. However, by trying to minimize, hide or deny our mistakes, we can compromise our integrity and how we're perceived.

Annie Therriault: Mm-hmm.

Judith Brunet: I've made mistakes. I've been ashamed of myself. But I'm quite proud that I've been able to talk about those, with my staff, with my boss, and that I've been able to bring a lot of humility to the table by saying, "Hmm, I did that and that was not my best move, and I need to figure out how to fix it." So, yeah, I think we're not superhuman. We are not supposed to be heroes. And sometimes we feel, as executives, that that's what we need to be. And that makes us our worst enemy, when we feel that way. In matters of integrity, humility goes a long way. If there's an issue related to integrity and the culture of your workplace is one where people can talk about it, can be open, they will raise it, and you will also feel comfortable raising it. I've heard of many situations where executives were quite unaware that they were not being perceived as having integrity. Their perception of themselves was far

Annie Therriault: Mmm.

Judith Brunet: from their reputation. And so by being accessible, it allows people to talk to you. It allows for conversation and self-discovery.

Annie Therriault: Yes, that is exactly the case, Judith, and I do have the impression sometimes that, when those things arise, we are caught off guard. We don't see it coming. And as a result, we're not sure what to do with this situation, where to go, whom to talk to, especially when, you know, those are conflicting values. So how do we navigate those difficult situations? Is there help, do you have tips and tricks for us, when we face situations like that?

Judith Brunet: Absolutely. You're not alone. There are a lot of ways that you can ask for help. But I would like to name you a few. The first one is obviously the Values and Ethics offices. Every agency and department will have one. They are so well positioned to understand your organizational culture; they will also provide you with risk analysis and offer mitigation strategies. Their recommendation and analysis will offer you a perspective that will help you see the situation from all angles.

Annie Therriault: Mm-hmm.

Judith Brunet: Because that's also the key here: expand how you look at the situation to make the best decision possible. Use your network. You will be surprised how many executives are going through the same thing as you. I'm hearing it from my position as an ombuds, where people are reaching out. And we see cycles: we see that the same thing that is bothering someone today is actually something that will be keeping someone else awake at night in a week or two from now

Annie Therriault: Mm-hmm.

Judith Brunet: or in a month or two. And if you don't reach out to your network, you won't know that. But you're not alone. It's normal to feel isolated. The last thing I want to talk about is us ombuds. There are 26 ombuds throughout the public service right now, and we keep growing. We ombuds provide confidential and formal, independent and impartial assistance to individuals facing workplace-related concerns. We are a safe place to help you navigate your options. We also bring forward systemic issues to the department or agency. When executives reach out to me, they often share afterwards that they felt so relieved to have a safe, confidential place to talk about

Annie Therriault: Mm-hmm.

Judith Brunet: what they had on their mind. I know that you can feel very lonely when faced with an ethical dilemma, especially when there are people looking up for you to have the right answer. And one thing I want to mention, too, is that an ethical reputation is not only built individually, it's also built collectively.

Annie Therriault: Mmm.

Judith Brunet: So don't hesitate to access the support that is available. It will strengthen your reputation as a leader but also build your own capacities and support others in doing the same.

Annie Therriault: Mmm. Well, not being alone with that situation really sounds good.

Judith Brunet: [chuckles]

Annie Therriault: So finding someone you can trust, someone you can talk to, whether it's someone from the Values and Ethics Office, even a colleague sometimes, is definitely the way to go. And so we don't stay alone with our dilemma. Mostly due to the fact that, sometimes, when we want to discuss more about values and ethics, it's not the topic itself, it's more how you feel as a person when you go through such a conflict. Sometimes you get caught by surprise, and there are a lot of emotions involved, and you're not sure how to feel. And you start to question yourself in places where you've never questioned yourself before.

Judith Brunet: Absolutely. You're right that for some people, they will question themselves, they will question their integrity, and they will feel very bad about themselves. And what I've seen also is the exact opposite where people actually will barricade themselves behind a very strong image, and they will not want to hear anything that is questioning

Annie Therriault: Mm-hmm.

Judith Brunet: their integrity. Well, actually, it's when you lower the barricade and when you're trying to listen to what's going on that you grow the most. And as an ombuds, part of our job is actually helping people navigate through their options. And when we say that, it's looking into very formal to informal routes to resolve the issues, and among those routes there is doing nothing, fight—like what recourse do you have to deal with this?—and there's also flight—leaving the organization. And it's a difficult decision. But when people call us, they often mention that, oh, I thought I had no options and now I see that I have eight. And you talked about all the emotions that we're going through, and the viable option today might be a different one tomorrow for the same individual. It depends also where you are at in terms of the process. So the back and forth between options is not rare, either, where you need to kind of assess how you feel about that option today, based on your level of energy and also your perception of yourself. What is the best for you today?

Annie Therriault: Yeah, and we hear a lot of testimonials of people who have decided to just move on, go work elsewhere, and they say, oh, it was the best thing I ever did. I should have done that maybe a while ago. So it's not always a negative side, but we don't see it right away. Thank you so much for sharing all those experiences and tips with us today. I'm sure it will be very helpful and hopefully will provide tools to people and will help them survive being an executive in the public service. Thank you very much, Judith.

Judith Brunet: Thanks, Annie.

Annie Therriault: We hope this conversation with Judith Brunet inspired you and that you feel better equipped to resolve your issues related to values and ethics. We invite you to continue the conversation by sharing this podcast with your network. Do you know an executive who has a great story to share? Better yet, would you like to participate? If so, please contact us. We hope these difficult situations will help you grow as an executive. May these be a stepping stone for your personal and professional development. Thank you for listening.


Guest: Judith Brunet, Ombud and Director of the Centre of Values and Ethics, Parks Canada

Host: Annie Therriault, on behalf of the Canada School of Public Service

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