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Ethics Training for the Public Sector Workforce

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Terry Quadros
January 9, 2015

It appears there are daily news stories of a public sector employee’s failure to exhibit appropriate ethical competencies. With the number of these stories presented for public consumption, one may believe that government employees have gone wild. Ethical failures in the public sector invoke public outrage and rightly so. These failures weaken the public’s confidence and trust in their government.

Of course, the media tend to sensationalize such stories to increase viewer ratings. Indeed, there are more public sector employees conducting government work ethically than those who do not. However, even one report of ethical misconduct hinders government’s ability to move the people’s business forward.

Quadros janWe understand that acquiring and maintaining ethical competencies within the public sector workforce is critical to the efficient operation of government. But just how does a person acquire ethical competencies? Are individuals born with these competencies or are they acquired through education, training or life experiences? Once ethical competencies are attained, do individuals need continued ethical training? Or is it more like riding a bike, in that once you figure it out the first time you never forget how to perform the task?

This author believes ongoing ethics training is crucial to the performance of public sector employees. Continued ethics training is needed to ensure understanding and proficiency. Accordingly, government agencies must provide employees annual ethics training, which includes real life examples.

Real life examples of ethical mistakes may offer learning opportunities for public sector employees, which no doubt will benefit society as a whole. The Department of Defense (DOD) Office of General Counsel Standards of Conduct Office publishes its annual Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure. The 2014 encyclopedia provides ethical failure examples perpetrated by federal government employees. To be fair, ethical failures occur in local and state governments as well. However, the DOD publishes the ethical failures in hopes to provide a teachable opportunity to other government employees.

The DOD’s ethical vignettes do not provide the names of individuals but do provide details of unacceptable behaviors and the resulting outcome for displaying such behaviors. The real life examples include everything from theft of government funds to fraud, and questionable activities that appear improper, yet do not break any laws. Along with the examples of unethical activities, the vignettes include the resulting punishment the perpetrator received, which include federal prison time, probation, demotion, letters of reprimand, loss of pay or termination of employment.

Employees are the most expensive asset an organization invests in; therefore it is important organizations do everything in their power to provide employees the resources needed to conduct business effectively. Ethics training is one investment resource tool an organization may employ to ensure their employees understand what is and is not acceptable behavior.

This author believes that all public sector employees, from the highest to the lowest positions, within a government agency, must receive ethics training. Rank, position, or status does not immune an employee from demonstrating questionable behaviors, which is evident from reviewing many of the DOD stories.

In particular, one DOD example is of an Army employee filing a false travel claim for $105.00 in lodging expenses she did not actually incur. Upon discovery of the employee’s unethical behavior, she “was sentenced to one year of probation and was ordered to pay a $3,000 fine. Ironically, the employee was the director of the Honesty, Ethics, Accountability, Respect, Trust and Support (HEARTS) Program for her duty station at the time she committed the violation.”

The DOD examples mainly focus on professional ethical issues. However, equally important is the conduct of government employees beyond that of their professional life. Recent examples include Representative Michael Grimm, who recently pleaded guilty “to one count of aiding in the filing of a false tax return.” Former Congressman Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress after he texted nude photos of himself to the public. Lastly, some federal employees were terminated for ethical violations based on filing their personal federal income tax documents late or neglecting to pay their personal debts.

Government organizations must be vigilant by providing employees ethics training annually. Training should include role playing and provide examples that may assist employees in developing the ethical competencies needed to perform their job adequately. Organizations that do not provide ongoing ethics training may be at risk from their employee’s personal and professional ethical improprieties, thus harming the organization as a whole and eroding its relationship with the public.


Author: Terry Quadros is an administrative analyst at the Superior Court of California, County of San Francisco and has worked in the judicial branch for nine years. Ms. Quadros earned a master’s degree in public administration. Starting spring of 2015, she will be a doctoral student at the University of Phoenix. Ms. Quadros is interested in conducting research in the field of public administration pertaining to organizational leadership and operational efficiencies. You may reach Ms. Quadros at [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

2 Responses to Ethics Training for the Public Sector Workforce

  1. Louis DeAnda Reply

    February 18, 2015 at 11:16 am

    I taught professional ethics at the national level for two years and was an internal security investigator for a federal law enforcement agency for five. Two critical elements for ethical development are training and management posture.

    Ethics training initially establishes the ethical standards of the organization and the expectations that exist between the organization and the member. Management reinforces those standards through the demonstration of good professional ethics and the administration of discipline for ethical infractions. A failure in either venue can negate the entire practice.

    Pattern analysis of ethical failures inevitably reveals management failures in the form of a failure to recognize or failure to act. In some cases, the failures are willful and deliberate (for various reasons). Those patterns should form the basis of the periodic in-service ethics training and that training should be individually tailored for applications to workforce line personnel and separately for managers. Ethical dilemmas should be incorporated for each venue that mirror classic and contemporary ethical problems encountered in the field.

    Finally, ethics should not be a stand-alone course of training, but should be incorporated as a theme into every basic course. In that way, the ethical emphasis is developed in new employees as a way of doing business.

  2. Don Menzel Reply

    January 10, 2015 at 4:08 pm

    Ms. Quadros asks several questions about ethical competence–how is it acquired and sustained? Ethical competence is a life-long pursuit, it’s the journey, not the destination–so, yes–one must keep working at it. Of course, there’s a great deal more–see Terry Cooper & Donald C. Menzel, eds., Achieving Ethical Competence for Public Service Leadership (2013)

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