Creating and maintaining cultures within public services that are based on ethical principles and codes of conduct has never been more important.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the tremendous influence governments can have on people’s lives, and, in turn, the need for people to trust governments, both when it comes to their decision-making processes and their accountability for the result.
A familiar tool for disseminating organisational ethics is a code of conduct. This is usually a document outlining organisational values and appropriate behaviours in the workplace. But do such codes really change or influence people’s behaviour?
First, let’s consider how codes of conduct function. Government codes of conduct are publicly available documents that communicate to both employees and the general public the standards expected of those employed within public services. In Australia, public service employees are made aware of the code on induction, and as part of ethical training throughout their careers.
Government employees can be held accountable for breaches of the code, which may lead to disciplinary processes and penalties. All these elements make up a code of conduct that is enforceable, and aims to build up the public’s trust that these standards will be upheld.
Now a look at how well they function. In the Australian public sector, figures indicate that up to 10% of employees in state and federal jurisdictions are involved in misconduct cases. That is quite substantial, considering codes of conduct are designed to set clear parameters around what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour at work. So what causes this disconnect between communicated values and actual behaviours?
From my own experience studying and working in the field of ethics, ethical behaviour is mainly influenced by personal, rather than institutional, values. A person’s sense of ethical boundaries at work is also mostly informed by that person’s workplace environment, which may differ from a workplace code of conduct.
Personal values come before codes of conduct
Public servants operate in a non-partisan environment, yet we all bring our own values and beliefs to work with us. These then influence our decision-making and behaviour. We each have different levels of commitment to ethical values and different perspectives on what justifies moral action. If your personal values already align with the values inscribed in a code of conduct manual, then those expressed values will seem like common sense.
However, if there is a difference between these values and your own, then a code of conduct on its own is unlikely to change your personal values or influence your behaviour. Someone acting in their own interest, rather than in the public’s interest, is unlikely to be dissuaded from this course of action by diktat.
Quite apart from this, it is worth noting that, on a day-to-day basis, employees do not refer to codes of conduct when making decisions. Instead, they rely on their own judgement and experience, as well as their sense of the culture and expectations of their workplace. Their moral intuitions are especially geared towards the expectations of their closest colleagues and managers. Beyond this, any sense of ethical behaviour pertains to whether conduct is held to the same standard across an organisation.
Consistency is key
Social learning research tells us people look for behavioural cues in those around them. That is why consistent messaging about the importance of ethical behaviour and reporting wrongdoing creates a powerful social norm.
If there is inconsistency between the messaging and the behaviour, a culture of inaction emerges. Over time, observing unethical behaviour that goes unpunished desensitises employees, destroying any integrity between communicated values and what really goes on. Such disconnect often becomes evident through employees’ silence and the (often later revealed) under-reporting of serious matters.
A decrease in the rate of employees who report unethical behaviours may seem like a sign of an increasingly ethical culture, but it may instead indicate a lack of trust in how these matters are dealt with by an organisation.
Clearly, culture and values play an important role in ethical behaviour. A code of conduct alone does not guarantee that employees will behave ethically. Despite its limitations, however, a code of conduct does establish a shared point of reference for an organisation’s values. It puts expectations down in writing, visibly marking a coherent set of values. In short, workplace codes of conduct have their place and are certainly not pointless.
However, creating an ethical culture in practice involves action at all levels. To refresh your own sense of what this means in your role, I suggest the following:
- That you and your colleagues reflect on and identify personal values and consider whether there is any conflict between personal and professional values
- That you recognise the impact of your own attitudes and behaviours on colleagues
- That you be aware of the impact of workplace situations and environments which can either encourage ethical behaviour or discourage employees from reporting wrongdoing
- That supervisors and managers understand the impact that their attitudes and behaviours have on their team. Silence on ethical matters sends a message of indifference
- That you and your team create an environment that is safe for all employees to report wrongdoing. This means understanding that it can be difficult to receive these reports due to personal cognitive bias and that it is important to always take these reports seriously
Finally, I suggest that you and your colleagues consider whether the ethical messaging within your own organisation is internally coherent and externally consistent.
These efforts to build and improve the culture of your organisation will help increase trust and demonstrate that actions taken and decisions made are based on a strong ethical foundation.