Frequently asked questions
Ethics and Public Service
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).
— top of page —
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. Fault-finding 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.
— top of page —
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:
- Seventy-nine percent of employees say their organization’s concern for ethics is a key reason they remain.
- Seventy-eight 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.
- Seventy-one 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.
- Forty-one 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.
— top of page —
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 unambiguous 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 proofreading.
- 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.
— top of page —
What are the 10 myths of ethics?
- It’s ethical if it’s legal and permissible. Loopholes, lax enforcement, and/or personal moral judgment do not outweigh what’s right or lawful.
- It’s ethical if it’s part of the job. Separating personal ethics from work ethics can cause decent people to justify actions at work that they would never do at home. Everyone’s first job is to be a good person.
- It’s ethical if it’s for a good cause. People can be vulnerable to rationalizations when advancing a noble aim. This can lead to deception, concealment, conflicts of interest, favoritism, or other departmental violations.
- It’s ethical if no one’s hurt. Ethical values are not factors to be considered in decision-making; they are ground rules.
- It’s ethical if everyone does it. Treating questionable behaviors as ethical norms under the guise of “safety in numbers” is a false rationale.
- It’s ethical if I don’t gain personally. Improper conduct done for others or for institutional purposes is wrong. Personal gain is not the only test of impropriety.
- It’s ethical if I’ve got it coming. Being overworked or underpaid doesn’t justify accepting favors, discounts, or gratuities. Nor is abusing sick time, insurance claims, or personal use of office equipment fair compensation for one’s services or underappreciated efforts.
- It’s ethical if I’m objective. By definition, if you’ve lost your objectivity, you don’t know you’ve lost it. Gratitude, friendship, or anticipation of future favors can subtly affect one’s judgment.
- It’s ethical if I fight fire with fire. Promise-breaking, lying, or other misconduct is unacceptable even if others routinely engage in them.
- It’s ethical if I do it for you. Committing white lies or withholding information in professional relationships (such as performance reviews) disregards the fact that most people would rather know unpleasant information than soothing falsehoods.
What is Josephson Institute?
Founded in 1987 by Michael Josephson, the Institute is a nonpartisan, nonsectarian, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the ethical quality of society by changing personal and organizational decision-making and behavior. It offers training programs and consulting services to influential leaders across the country in the areas of business, public administration, policing, character education, and sportsmanship.
— top of page —
What is Josephson Institute’s approach to public-service ethics?
The mission of our Center for Public Service Ethics is to help institutions shape, enhance, and fortify their ethical culture and to prevent misconduct from eroding confidence in the public sector. To accomplish this, the Institute developed five core principles for the public-service arena:
- Place public interest over all other considerations including personal or private interests.
- Make decisions on the merits, free from partiality, prejudice, or conflicts of interest.
- Conduct government openly, efficiently, equitably, and honorably.
- Observe the letter and spirit of the law.
- Avoid appearances of impropriety or unethical conduct.
What programs and services does Josephson Institute offer?
Training and Education
The Center offers a variety of ethics-training approaches. Services include:
- Keynote addresses to public servants and administrators
- Staff-meeting modules on how to reinforce ethical responsibilities
- Orientation modules to introduce new staff to an agency’s values and expectations
- Ethical-integration trainings on how to weave values into all departmental programs
- Half-day working sessions to address issues/crises that have arisen
- Half-day or one-day forums on ethical decision-making
- One-day trainings on how to employ public-sector ethics concepts
- One-day advanced decision-making trainings for senior management
- Two-day train-the-trainer sessions on how to develop an ethics program
— top of page —
The Center also offers customized support. Services include:
- Plan and develop an ethics initiative.
- Assess and audit an overall ethical culture (code of conduct, compliance, training, discipline, etc.).
- Conduct focus groups on ethical strengths and vulnerabilities.
- Customize a code of ethics.
- Review existing procedures and practices regarding recruiting, hiring, screening, retaining, promoting, terminating, or disciplining.
- Design a communication and awareness campaign to reinforce values (posters, table tents, screen savers, e-mail messages, website materials, etc.).
- Examine internal complaint and investigation procedures and recommend improvements.
- Provide ongoing consultation and continuing education for management and staff.
— top of page —