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A Matter of Ethics

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

By Joe Jarret
June 5, 2015

“Public confidence in the integrity of the government is indispensable to faith in democracy, and when we lose faith in the system, we lose faith in everything we fight and spend for.” Adlai Stevenson

The Challenge

Ask any experienced HR manager, and s/he will tell you that, beyond the weighty responsibilities of recruiting, training and maintaining a quality workforce are the ever present ethical issues. During the course of the last two decades, I have served several state and local public entities as both a manager and an attorney. I have consistently attempted to inculcate in my clients, colleagues and employees, the value of a code of ethics or conduct that goes beyond the basic tenets of “don’t lie, cheat or steal.”

My goal is one shared by a multitude of HR professionals around the globe. Because the HR manager deals directly with employees from their first day on the job until their last, ethics is an integral part of the HR function. The challenge, of course, consists of those ethical conundrums and challenges that, although not codified in an entity’s ethics policy, nevertheless play themselves out on a daily basis.

Ethics Explored

There exist myriad definitions for the term “ethics.” The Collins English Dictionary defines ethics as “the philosophical study of the moral value of human conduct and of the rules and principles that ought to govern it.” However, Judy Nadler, a senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University suggests that it is helpful to identify what ethics is NOT:

Jarret may 15

Ethics is not the same as feelings. Feelings provide important information for our ethical choices. Some people have highly developed habits that make them feel bad when they do something wrong, but many people feel good even though they are doing something wrong.

Ethics is not religion. Many people are not religious, but ethics applies to everyone. Most religions do advocate high ethical standards but sometimes do not address all the types of problems we face.

Ethics is not following the law. A good system of law does incorporate many ethical standards, but law can deviate from what is ethical. Law may have a difficult time designing or enforcing standards in some important areas and may be slow to address new problems.

Ethics is not following culturally accepted norms. Some cultures are quite ethical, but others become corrupt or blind to certain ethical issues. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is not a satisfactory ethical standard.

Ethics is not science. Social and natural science can provide important data to help us make better ethical choices. But science alone does not tell us what we ought to do.

Ethical Breaches

Unlike our private sector counterparts, violations of public entity ethics policies have a habit of becoming front page news. Consequently, for every ethical violation that appears in the media, the public’s confidence in its elected and appointed officials erodes a little more.

Professor Ahmed Sakr Ashour with Alexandria University in Egypt, noted that deficiencies in the overall institutional framework of human resources management (HRM) can lead to untold woe for a public entity. Such deficiencies include:

• Failing to state and enforce basic ethical/integrity principles in the overall HRM strategy and policies leaves HRM void of ethical/integrity direction.

• Failing to outline and enforce limits on political and personal influences, thus safeguarding transparency, allows such influences to penetrate into HRM decisions.

• The absence of clearly stated and enforced policies to promote professionalism in HRM allows the whole system to be vulnerable to malpractices and corruption.

• A lack of a code of ethics, guiding and enforcing the standards of HRM units and employees can lead to a lack of accountability.

Employees are a public entity’s greatest resource. Investment in employee and supervisor development can lead to a host of benefits including an ethical workplace culture that enjoys the faith, trust and confidence of the citizens it serves. HR must take the lead in promoting an ethical and respectful work environment that goes beyond regulatory compliance. It can best accomplish this by reaching out to all the component parts of the organization and by consistently reinforcing the ethical policies and procedures that affect all employees and the citizens they serve.


Author: Joseph G. Jarret is a public sector manager, attorney and mediator who lectures full-time on behalf of the master of public policy and administration program in the Department of Political Science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He is a former United States Army Armored Cavalry Officer with service overseas and was the 2013-14 president of the E. Tennessee Chapter of ASPA. Jarret holds the B.S., MPA and J.D. degrees and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in educational leadership & policy studies.

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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.

One Response to A Matter of Ethics

  1. Robert Joyce Reply

    June 5, 2015 at 1:31 pm

    Not to minimize ethics, but perhaps a mini-sense of humor can also drive home the point.

    An old rule in D.C. 40 years ago: Bureau Director “If I show up in Sally Quinn’s column in the “Post” because of something you do, you are transferred to the Chicago stock yards overnight.”

    Or the best reason for not carrying out a direct order “I don’t do things that are stupid and illegal.”

    Anyway, I am sure you can find more.

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