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Framework for Ethical Actions by Public Employees

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

By James Bourey
December 12, 2022

The International City/County Management Association (ICMA), American Society for Public Administration (ASPA) and other professional organizations that support public employees in certain professions—such as engineers and social workers—offer guidance for the ethical conduct of their members. This guidance covers such behavior as the acceptance of gifts or other benefits in exchange for given actions, conduct in relation to other employees, refraining from illegal actions and other prohibited conduct. 

Most of these guidelines do not address the important consideration of the public employee’s ethical obligation to report the conduct of others that may be illegal or otherwise inappropriate. Those that do report such actions are often referred to as whistle blowers. There are federal and state laws that offer some protection for those reporting violations. However, even with these laws, the reporter of wrongdoing can be in for a difficult time with their employer. For this reason and others, such as social peer pressure against being “a snitch,” employees are often reluctant to report wrongdoing. Despite the trials and tribulations that can come with reporting issues, I believe that public employees have an affirmative obligation to report significant inappropriate conduct of others. 

Since I believe there is this affirmative obligation and the existing professional guidelines offer little direction, this column is written to suggest a framework for consideration. I recognize that this may raise a number of questions in the reader’s mind. Of course, columns are often written with the intention of sparking an important professional dialog. I hope that this column raises questions in public professionals minds about their obligation to report problems.

This framework could become part of the code of ethics. It attempts to provide guidance on the circumstances in which employees have an ethical obligation to report actions to the appropriate authority.

The Framework

It is the ethical responsibility of public employees to report the following actions they observe in which they have direct evidence or strongly suspect:

  • Criminal activity
  • Sexual harassment
  • Discrimination based on race, sex or sexual orientation
  • Actions that are direct violations of the rules and regulations of federal, state or local governments
  • Actions which if carried out would result in the violation of federal, state or local rules or regulations where the employee has previously raised the concern and their superior continues to pursue the action.
  • Actions that would violate the professional conduct guidelines of their profession.

For the purpose of this guideline, direct evidence means the employee has personally observed the action, has documentation of the activity or has been informed of the activity by a reputable source. It is the employee’s obligation to report this situation to their direct superior unless that person is involved in the activity or has knowledge of the issue and has not taken action to address it. In situations where the employee believes that their superiors may be part of the problem or they fear direct retaliation, employees should report to a higher authority in the organization or seek an outside party that would have authority to correct the situation. This could be law enforcement where illegal activity is involved, the federal Equal Opportunity Office in the case of sexual harassment or discrimination or another federal agency empowered to enforce regulations controlling the actions.

Employees who strongly suspect one of these actions also need to report the possible wrongdoing. This might include things such as a repeated shortage in accounts, or frequently upset employees after interaction with others.


  • A building official approving a building plan that does not meet the code requirements
  • Approving a subdivision without adequate public facilities as defined by a local ordinance
  • Approving the redevelopment of a blighted area where federally mandated relocation of existing residences is not met
  • Reuniting a child with a family where there is clear evidence that the child will be put back into an abusive situation

It is not the responsibility of an employee to report an action or behavior that is merely a suspicion where:

  • No corroborating evidence exists
  • The action is beyond the employee’s ability to evaluate the legality or appropriateness of the conduct
  • An agency entrusted with the responsibility to enforce a rule or regulation of an action or behavior is aware of the issue providing that the agency has not failed in their responsibility to pursue the matter.

The author recognizes that the Codes of Ethics of public administration organizations have been developed over decades and have had the reasoned judgment of top professionals. This framework is in no way intended to be a criticism of these valuable documents. Rather, it is intended to raise the question of whether the times call for an added dimension to these professional standards. Even if organizational leaders do not believe it is appropriate for their codes to include such a framework, individuals might chose to consider this as a personal guideline for their responsibility. It is clear that the heroic actions of many in this country have been vital in ensuring some institutions stay on the right path.

Author: James Bourey served local government for 37 years, including as a city and county manager and regional council executive director. He also worked as a consultant to local government for another six years. He is the author of numerous professional articles as well as the books, A Journey of Challenge, Commitment and Reward; Tales of a City/County Manager and A Guidebook for City and County Managers: Meeting Today’s Challenges.

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