What is ethics?
Ethics refers to standards governing the conduct of a person or
members of a profession. There are three aspects to ethics:

  • Discerning right from wrong
  • Committing to do what is right
  • Doing what is right

Why is ethics important?

  • There is an inner benefit (virtue is its own reward).
  • There is a personal benefit (virtue is personally and professionally prudent).
  • There is an appreciation benefit (virtue enhances self-esteem and the admiration and respect of others).

What is public-service ethics?
To earn and safeguard public trust, employees and agencies must not only comply with laws and regulations, but adhere to higher standards than normally expected or required. “Wrongdoing” is often an ethical rather than a legal concept, so avoiding ethical misconduct is not only the right thing for public administrators to do, it’s a vital and effective risk-management strategy.

Why is public-service ethics important?
Widespread cynicism. Embarrassing scandals. Obstructive partisanship. Crippling regulations. Faultfinding media. Damaging investigations. Whopping penalties. Managing public institutions has never been tougher. The mere accusation of wrongdoing can harm reputations, drain morale, hamper the ability to attract and retain top talent, and impair the delivery of public service.

Whose responsibility is public-service ethics?
Everyone’s, but it starts at the top. Elected officials, policymakers, and senior management should walk the talk by modeling, communicating, and enforcing their expectations and commitment to ethical decision making.

Do ethics codes work?
Ethics codes don’t make people ethical, make bad people good, or make people with poor judgment wise. But they can help define what’s right, instill an ethical culture, and establish standards of conduct in areas not governed by law. Studies have found that:

  • 79 percent of employees say their organization’s concern for ethics is a key reason they remain.
  • 78 percent of workers at organizations with an ethics program report misconduct when they see it compared to 39 percent of employees whose organizations don’t have an ethics program.
  • 71 percent of employees who see honesty applied rarely or never in their organization have witnessed misconduct in the past year compared to 25 percent who see honesty applied frequently.
  • 41 percent of low-morale organizations say absenteeism is a serious issue, while only 20 percent of high-morale organizations report the same.

What values should be implemented?
In 1992, Josephson Institute convened a summit conference in Aspen, Colorado, of the nation’s foremost educators, youth leaders, and ethicists. The gathering created the Six Pillars of Character (trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, and citizenship), a set of clear, consistent, nonpartisan, nonsectarian principles of conduct designed to resonate across society.

What makes an ethics code effective?

  • It must be inclusive (everyone participates, from senior management on down).
  • It must be valid (content is consistent with standard ethical principles).
  • It must be authentic (policies are enforced and values are reinforced in both word and deed).

What sustains an ethics code?

  • It’s specific. Guidelines are explained clearly using common scenarios.
  • It’s thought-provoking. Public employees are taught how to analyze situations and make good choices.
  • It’s clear. Legalese, vagueness, jargon, and platitudes are absent. Instead of saying “Avoid improper use of equipment,” explain precisely what is meant with examples and unam biguous language.
  • It’s readable. One should not need a user’s guide to wade through its provisions. Improve readability with wide margins, large type, breakout quotes, tight editing, and accurate proof reading.
  • It’s concise. The entire U.S. Constitution is shorter than many ethics codes. Avoid complex sentences. Translate dense, multifaceted paragraphs into bulleted or numbered lists.
  • It’s realistic. “Absolutely no personal phone calls” is unreasonable. “Accept no gifts or gratuities” is vague.
  • It’s enforceable. All provisions should adhere to union agreements, city or government mandates, departmental regulations, Constitutional rights, etc. Institute a credible and efficient process for receiving complaints and investigating charges.
  • It’s flexible. Codes should be regularly put to the test. Make additions, omissions, or changes as needed.
  • It’s a process. Most employee cynicism stems from senior management flouting ethical rules. A code’s value is not its prose, but the commitment of those who implement it.

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