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Securing the Foundation for Ethical Integrity in the Workplace

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

By Richard Jacobs
August 5, 2016

A 2016 Ethics Research Center (ERC) report suggests that implementing comprehensive initiatives to assess and abate compliance and ethics risks yields multiple benefits, including:

  • Reduced risk of wrongdoing by parties employed by or aligned with the organization.
  • Increased likelihood that, when it occurs, wrongdoing will be made known to management.
  • Increased likelihood that suspected and substantiated wrongdoing will be handled responsibly.
  • Increased integrity in the organization’s performance and its reputation as a responsible business. 

Understanding ethical integrity

However, a more recent global study of top and middle managers of public and private organizations questions whether those benefits are attainable. On average, followers reported:

  • Twenty percent of their managers have engaged in contracting violations, theft, bribery and retaliation against those who report misconduct.
  • Twenty-two percent of their managers have engaged in lying and abusive behavior.
  • Sixteen percent took bribes and engaged in other corruption-related misconduct. 

One finding of particular importance to U.S. public administrators: They are reported to have engaged in misconduct at a slightly greater rate than their private sector counterparts (18 percent to 17 percent).

This isn’t good news, not simply because the reported misconduct may be illegal and unprofessional. It presents a proximate danger to ethical integrity in the workplace, as managerial misconduct can contribute to—if not accelerate—the deterioration of followers’ compliance with the law and professional standards.

Identifying and confronting misconduct

The good news is that nearly 80 percent of followers reported their managers upholding—at a minimum—legal, professional and workplace standards. For those public administrators, how might they assess workplace misconduct and—where it is reported—confront it?

To rectify misconduct effectively, public administrators need data. As ERC notes, what is not known cannot be addressed. The place to begin identifying misconduct that may be present is to solicit followers’ perceptions regarding the organization’s current state of ethicality, including managerial misconduct.

The ERC study identifies those concerns. In the United States, they include:

  • Pressure to compromise organizational standards (public sector: 25 percent)
  • Observed misconduct (public and private sectors: 30 percent)
  • Reporting misconduct (public and private sectors: 76 percent)
  • Retaliation against reporters (public and private sectors: 53 percent) 

Knowing these concerns, public administrators need to identify the extent to which these concerns evidence themselves. To solicit data, ERC suggests hosting focus groups, conducting employee surveys and polls or utilizing other valid and reliable methods. The goal is to understand better the current state of ethicality characterizing the workplace.

One caveat: ERC notes that “employees across all sectors do report misconduct when observed” but only to the degree they don’t fear retaliation for making reports. Counterintuitively, as reporting increases, so does retaliation. For example: In the 70 percent and more instances of reported misconduct, employees identify top and middle managers retaliating 50 percent of the time.

Public administrators must address this fear directly. The ERC recommends investing significant resources to increase and encourage followers not to fear reporting misconduct as well as to implement strategies that will protect against retaliation. Practical strategies include:

  • Direct outreach to whistleblowers, especially during the first three weeks after a report is filed.
  • Training for all administrators regarding how to listen and respond to employee concerns.
  • Establishing a system that protectively monitors employees who report concerns over the long term.
  • Publicizing how those who violate anti-retaliation policies are disciplined and why. 

The data may also reveal differences in perceptions between locations, work groups or other segments of the organization’s employee population. These differences can assist in identifying resources and tailoring solutions for those places and personnel where misconduct is occurring. Moreover, reported misconduct can reveal a pattern, not an isolated incident, and may be a reaction to organizational change (e.g., restructuring, budget cuts, performance systems that encourage misconduct, contracting operations).

Lastly, ERC suggests focusing not upon all of the misconduct reported but a few commonplace behaviors, for example, abusive behavior or lying (for the U.S. public and private sectors: 22 percent). Then, explore the communication and specific behaviors generating this misconduct.

As the law and professional/workplace standards form the bedrock upon which employees conduct themselves, public administrators must periodically monitor behavior as well as their followers’ perceptions of the organization’s ethical culture.

This foundation frees up public administrators to focus upon what’s substantive, namely, formulating a comprehensive compliance and ethics program that will build organizational cultures characterized by ethical integrity, as the ASPA Code of Ethics mandates.

Building ethical integrity

Public administrators can leverage an organizational change initiative to educate current and new employees about the organization’s code of conduct and code of ethics. This focus offers employees the opportunity to put the past in the past and move forward with a renewed and more vigorous commitment to the values.

In addition, integrating ethical principles into the decision-making process—for example, the eight principles enunciated in the ASPA Code—transforms the decision-making process into the “glue” binding the organization’s culture and “the way we do things around here,” as Bower noted. As everyone’s conduct gradually embodies shared standards and principles, the organization they form—e pluribus unum—becomes an ethical community whose members do not fear holding one another accountable for promoting their shared standards and principles.

These laudable outcomes characterize an ethical organization whose members exude ethical integrity. The ERC data indicate that constructing this culture isn’t something public administrators should consider aspirational but one that’s entirely attainable.


Author: Richard M. Jacobs is a professor of public administration at Villanova University, acquisitions editor of Public Integrity, and chair-elect of the ASPA Section on Ethics and Integrity in Governance. His research interests include organization theory, leadership ethics, ethical competence and teaching and learning in public administration. Jacobs may be contacted at: [email protected].

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