Ethics “dilemmas” start small—perhaps with an invitation to lunch or perhaps with a small “token of appreciation.” These dilemmas are actually tests to see how far an employee or official may go in accepting “favors.”
Ethics—Where are we now?” was the title of a seminar
I presented a short time ago. My answer? “Ethics are doing fine—it’s the people with whom we are having problems. In today’s societal environment, ethics is a sexy word. Stories about corporate ethics, ethical conduct in sports, election ethics, and government ethics seem to be a part of the headlines in every corner of the country. For those of us in New Jersey, it seems ethics is the mantra of the day. When one considers that there are 566 municipalities, 613 school districts, 360 authorities, and 182 fire districts with the multiples of government officials in each, the percentages of those who are “ethically challenged” is relatively small. Yet each of us who are public servants bear the brunt of the actions of others each time a headline announces a prosecution or indictment for ethical lapses by a local government official.
The Ethics Resource Center (ERC), located in Arlington, Virginia, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that, as related in the ERC published materials is “devoted to independent research and the advancement of high ethical standards and practices in public and private institutions.” The ERC, as well as many of the ethics lecturers throughout the State of New Jersey, point out that the concept of government is the public trust. Like any other “trust” one encounters throughout their lives, once eroded or lost, it is a difficult task to regain that trust. With government, public trust is reality exponentially expanded by perception. Once the headline appears in print for an individual, the public trust for all government officials erodes.
In their 2007 National Government Ethics Survey*1, the ERC found that “…misconduct across government on a whole is very high—nearly six in ten government employees saw at least one form of misconduct in the last twelve months…[and] is alarmingly high at the state and local levels (57 and 63 per cent respectively).” These percentages are alarming. One of the rhetorical questions we must ask ourselves is what are we doing to create an ethical culture that will reduce this trend? The ERC survey says that there is good news as well: “…a sizable majority (70 percent) of government workers who observe misconduct report it to management.”
In my experience, this percentage is much lower. In an ethics class I teach to college level students, I frequently pose ethical dilemmas and ask what choice the student would make. One of the dilemmas is, “If you are a police officer and you know that a fellow police officer was selling drugs, would you turn him/her in?” It is eye opening that approximately 90 percent of the class said “no.” When asked why, they stated such things as, “It’s none of my business”, “I’m not a snitch”, “I don’t want to be retaliated against”, and so on. It is a difficult position for a government employee to report ethical misconduct to management.
Instead of putting employees in this difficult position, local government officials should create an ethical environment where all employees and officials are trained in ethics. Local units should also have processes that help create an environment of integrity and ethics compliance and finally, have a system where an employee can get reliable, confidential help if faced with a choice between a good ethical decision and a desperate situation.
One of the conclusions reached in the ERC survey is, “…what seems to matter most is the extent to which ethics is woven into the fabric of everyday work life and decision-making in the government. A commitment to ethics that engages all government employees at all levels and incorporates ethical considerations into operational decisions is critical to reducing misconduct and protecting public trust in government.”
In 2004, the Division of Local Government Services (DLGS) instituted a requirement that all certified positions (Municipal Clerks, Certified Financial Officers, Certified Public Works Managers and Tax Collectors), complete a number of CEUs in ethics for their
re-certification. Each year, the League of Municipalities and the Division
of Local Government Services team together to provide training to newly elected officials that include an ethics component. The opportunities are available for ethics training, yet we see a dearth of local officials and employees at the ethics sessions. Ethics training for all employees and all elected officials should be a priority. When I speak at ethics seminars, the reaction at the beginning is usually; “I don’t need to know about the state ethics statutes because it doesn’t apply to me—I am never in those situations.”
Whether one realizes it, everyday everyone makes ethics decisions. Should I call in sick because I need a mental health day? The supermarket undercharged me, do I let them know? Most of these decisions are small and do not rise to the level of facing an ethics dilemma. As Chris Christie, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, and Stuart Rabner, the former New Jersey Attorney General, stated in many of their ethics seminars, ethics “dilemmas” start small—perhaps with an invitation to lunch or perhaps with a small “token of appreciation.” These dilemmas are actually tests to see how far an employee or official may go in accepting “favors.” Training to apprise employees and officials of ethical dilemma possibilities and challenges in everyday decision-making are essential to help create an ethical culture.
An ethical culture begins at the local level. Although there are many methods to create an ethical culture, it is imperative that local units establish good internal control systems—both administratively and financially. Internal controls help establish a preventive environment to thwart ethical misconduct. In addition, the local government should establish a process for an ethics compliance program. The ERC surveyed federal, state and local government employees regarding ethics in government. According to the survey, “[t]he least amount of progress has been made at the local level establishing ethics and compliance programs that employees are aware of and utilize.”2
Many seminar attendees do not know the local government ethics statutes (N.J.S.A. 40A:9-22.1 et.seq); nor do they know the local codes and policies pertaining to a code of conduct. The three types of misconduct most frequently observed by employees in local government are: abusive behavior (26%); putting one’s own interests ahead of that of the organization (conflicts—26%); and internet abuse (23%). Other ethical conduct observations include, using competitor’s inside information, bribes, misuse of confidential information, alteration of financial documents, alteration of documents, stealing, misreporting of hours worked and improper hiring practices.3
Of those answering the survey, a majority stated they never reported misconduct because of fear of retaliation. One of the most important aspects of creating an ethical culture is to provide a comfort level that good conduct will be rewarded while improper conduct will not be tolerated. Analogously, the local government should provide an avenue for employees and officials to talk when faced with an ethical dilemma.
Too often ethics is reactive and not proactive. As government employees, we must provide adequate training, functioning internal controls and create an environment conducive to an ethical culture.
1 “The National Government Ethics Survey”,
Ethics Resource Center, (Arlington, VA, 2008).
2 National Government Ethics Survey, p.30.
3 National Government Ethics Survey, p.30-31.
* This article does not comment on the survey, the methodology or the population surveyed. More information on the survey and the Ethics Research Center, is found at www.ethics.org