Ethics Series: See Something, Say Something

All employees have a stake in reporting incidents of suspected or actual wrongdoing.

Dec 14, 2017 | ARTICLE

Why Reporting Wrongdoing Is Essential

An organization's reputation is built on the conduct of each and every employee, each and every day.  The intense media coverage that follows when a city employee is caught stealing funds, for example, damages that city’s reputation for years and has fallout that colors the public’s perceptions of employees of all cities.  And, given that the newspaper articles that follow will be accessible on the internet forever, the damage can last much longer than would have been the case decades ago.

Creating a culture that encourages an individual to raise the red flag when something unethical or illegal is taking place is critical. Everyone needs to be willing to report what's happening behind the scenes or take steps to prevent a violation in the first place.

But it's a tough sell. Whistle-blowing has traditionally felt like a violation of that kindergarten rule not to be a tattletale. Very few of us enjoy confrontation or being the instigator who causes trouble for someone else (even if that person deserves it). One can hope that the recent willingness of women throughout the country to step forward and claim they have been sexually harassed or assaulted will give needed courage to whistleblowers for other types of ethical problems as well.  The consequences of keeping silent can be significant and harmful.

Unethical Conduct Is Visible

Somewhat surprisingly, the typical case of unethical conduct in the workplace is rarely a secret. Somebody besides the perpetrator knows. After all, the conduct is taking place in a fairly sophisticated work environment and may be witnessed by a work colleague or perhaps even a supervisor. And, if it is a serial activity, the number of witnesses just grows.

Or perhaps no one actually witnessed the activity but suspects it based on some level of tangible evidence. Then there are the others who didn’t see the conduct but heard about it.

Costs of Silence

The consequences of keeping silent can be significant and harmful.  First, if not addressed, the behavior is likely to continue, which means when the accounting finally comes, the damages will be greater.

Second, as additional people become suspicious or have evidence, they will be less likely to come forward if they suspect that other people knew and didn’t come forward.

And third, as the silence grows, the message that gets sent to all employees is, essentially, that the organization and its leaders tolerate unethical behavior.  

A Case in Point

A topic at one city's management team meeting was the recent dismissal of the IT director. This individual, recruited from the private sector with high expectations, lasted only a year before the city manager asked for his resignation.

The manager explained to the management team that in several instances the director entered into contracts that violated city policy. This employee continued the practice even after being counseled on the matter. The final straw was his personal relationship with a direct report.

As members of the management team talked about their experiences with this individual, they were startled to realize that they all had inklings that things were not okay, that he just didn't seem to get it about operating in the public sector, and, yes, that they had heard rumors about his affair.

But—to a person—no one had talked with the individual or raised the issue with the city manager. What was their ethical obligation to address their concerns with their peer? Would an early intervention have produced a better outcome?

The result of the team members' reflection was recognition that leaders are not immune from the urge to sit on the sidelines and a joint pledge for real, mutual accountability. In practice, this meant having the courage, in private, to call their colleagues on unacceptable conduct and if required, talking directly with HR or the city manager's office.

Professional Accountability

As a profession, we face the same ethical obligation to hold our colleagues accountable for their conduct. And, yes, it's tough to do. We've walked in their shoes. We relate to the difficulty of having every misstep, big or small, reported in the media and kept alive by the bloggers.

The ICMA Code of Ethics establishes a high set of standards for the profession. In a murky and complicated universe, it defines clear lines of acceptable conduct. Some ethical violations, like taking extra compensation or gifts, are so obvious that they get addressed by the employer and ICMA.

But there is a whole universe of inappropriate conduct where the associated risk and potential damage to the public and the profession may be visible and understood only by another professional in the field. Examples include political activity and conflicts of interest. Therein lies part of the value of self-policing.

Personal Responsibility as an ICMA Member

ICMA members have an ethical obligation to report incidents of unethical conduct by peers. A guideline added to the ICMA Code of Ethics in 2004 states: "When becoming aware of a possible violation of the ICMA Code of Ethics, members are encouraged to report possible violations to ICMA. In reporting the possible violation, members may choose to go on record as the complainant or report the matter on a confidential basis."

See something that raises a substantial question as to a colleague's honesty, trustworthiness, or fitness to serve the public? See conduct that is damaging to the reputation of other professionals and to the profession? Then you should report that in good faith to ICMA, even knowing that you might not have all the facts.

By doing so, you allow an objective peer review process to sort out those facts and reach an independent judgment.  If there was no unethical conduct, your colleague will be cleared, and you will feel better for having ensured the matter was addressed in the proper arena and knowing that there are no further steps you need to consider.

If you are on the fence about reporting, contact ICMA staff to discuss your options confidentially.

As a Leader of Your Organization

The even larger question is: What do we need to do to create a culture where individuals feel personally responsible and safe enough to report questionable conduct and to convey the point that sitting on the sidelines while a colleague falls off the ethics cliff is harmful to all?

Bottom line? Share your views on the importance of ethics with all employees.  By your words and actions, encourage employees to report suspected wrongdoing. Make it clear that everyone, including the city manager, is expected to uphold the highest standards.  Treat suspected ethical violations quickly and fairly.  Use reported episodes in other cities as a teaching opportunity.  Blow the whistle on your peers. The cost of doing anything less is too high to the profession and to your organization.

This article is based on an article that first appeared from ICMA on April 21, 2017. That full article can be accessed here.


Message from the Cal-ICMA Ethics Committee

Every member of ICMA is governed by the ICMA Code of Ethics.  Adopted in 1924, the Code establishes the principles that lay the foundation for our local government management profession and helps to set the standard for excellence in government.  ICMA members pledge to uphold these principles in their work as a method to help earn trust of the public, elected officials, and their staff.

The Cal-ICMA Ethics Committee is committed to raising awareness of this obligation and the importance of respecting political neutrality and the rights of elected official and residents as encouraged by the Code of Ethics.  In this, and in subsequent issues, we will be highlighting specific ethical issues and reprising past articles from ICMA.  Here’s are links to the previous articles in this series: