See Something, Say Something

Whether out in the field delivering services or occupying the manager’s chair, all employees have a stake in reporting incidents of suspected or actual wrongdoing.

ARTICLE | Apr 21, 2017

Whether out in the field delivering services or occupying the manager's chair, all employees have a stake in reporting incidents of suspected or actual wrongdoing. An organization's reputation is built—for better or worse—on the conduct of each individual employee.

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 even take steps to stop it from happening in the first place.

But it's a tough sell. Whistle-blowing feels 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). The lack of certainty about facts and motivations keeps others silent. But the consequences of keeping silent can be significant and harmful.

Unethical Conduct Is Visible

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 in the light of day to 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.

Cost of Silence

This all begs the question: 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?

Leaders are not immune from the urge to sit on the sidelines. The 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 those 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 a personal and joint pledge for real, mutual accountability. In practice, this meant having the courage, in private, to call their colleagues on unacceptable conduct. The next step would be directly to the city manager's office, if required.

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

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 the matter to ICMA. In reporting the matter, 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 it in good faith to ICMA, even knowing that you might not have all the facts.

Allow an objective peer review process to sort out those facts and reach an independent judgment. If you are on the fence about reporting, then please contact ICMA staff to discuss your options confidentially.

Bottom line? Create a culture within your organization that actually encourages employees to report wrongdoing. Blow the whistle on your peers. The cost of silence is too high to the profession and to your organization.

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