I am a recently elected county official concerned that my county does not have a formal ethics policy. What are the major elements of such a policy and should I urge my colleagues to adopt one?
Ethical behavior is at the foundation of effective public service. The HR Doctor recommends that every public agency adopt an ethics policy. A basic policy is not difficult and can be very useful.
Fundamentally, the idea behind an ethics policy is that the employees who transact the public's business do so from the standpoint of the public interest and public service, rather than personal gain or advantage. The main parts of an ethics policy are the following:
Prohibited conflicts of interest.
The decisions made by government employees are to be made so that neither the perception nor the reality of inappropriate personal gain as a result of the decision is present.
An employee who has a personal interest in a business or in a relationship with a citizen or a vendor or another employee that may create the perception or reality of a conflict should disclose and defer.
The possible conflict should be disclosed to someone higher up in the chain of command and the employee should defer making the decision to a supervisor if it could be later charged that the employee gained personal compensation or services as a result.
It is particularly important for supervisors not to use their position to reap personal gain from subordinates. "Hiring" subordinates to do home maintenance for the supervisor, for example, would not be proper.
The agency may reasonably restrict outside employment which would represent a conflict of interest described above.
Many counties require that employees complete an outside employment approval form in which the employee discloses the requested outside employment and defers on the decision to other persons, such as an agency head or review by human resources.
Engaging in outside employment would be prohibited without an approved form.
In general, it is none of the agency's business what a person does outside of work. However, it becomes the agency's business if the employee has an outside job in violation of the conflict of interest policy.
It is an obvious or a perceived problem when an employee is put in a position of supervising, disciplining, evaluating or making other human resource decisions over a subordinate who is a close relative. It is appropriate for an agency to take steps to prevent that kind of "relative" conflict of interest.
Many agencies adopt a standard that the employment of relatives will be prohibited in any employment situation in which one relative makes decisions or effectively recommends personnel actions affecting the other relative.
One definition of "relative" is a person related to another by blood or marriage to the third degree of relationship is not uncommon. That would include first cousins.
It may also be appropriate to consider including in the definition persons with whom an employee has a "family-like relationship," such as a live-in "significant other."
Here again, as with outside employment, it is necessary, for these policies to be effective and defensible, for the focus to be not on the personal relationship, but rather on preventing the appearance or reality of a conflict of interest.
Ethics policies generally include a restriction on a public employee receiving or giving gifts to an individual or organization subject to regulation by the employee. These policies often include guidelines on the value of a covered gift.
For example, in Broward County, Fla., a gift becomes prohibitive when its value is greater than $5. Note that a "gift" includes not only compensation, but objects or services of value such as a meal or a service performed for an employee, such as home maintenance or lawn care.
Gift policies, on the other hand, should not restrict the exchange of tokens of appreciation or celebration between employees, such as when a retirement or birthday or a service anniversary occurs.
These four basic components of an ethics policy need to be amended by each county to incorporate provisions of applicable state law, as well as the traditions and past policies that may exist in a county. Once the policy is drafted, there are three more steps needed. First, the policy should be widely distributed throughout the organization, especially to managers and supervisors. Don't forget new employees as part of the orientation process.
Second, there should be ongoing training provided, so that every employee has a chance to ask questions and seek clarification about how the policy might affect their individual activities. In effect, this training "takes an excuse away" from someone who might later violate the rules and claim that they never knew about the policy or never had a chance to have it explained.
Some jurisdictions will have an acknowledgment sheet signed by every recipient of a policy which says that they received the policy, understand it, and are aware of the importance of adhering to it. Once again, this training should be incorporated into new hire processing, as well.
Finally, the policy needs to be applied and enforced in a uniform standard. A policy that is applied differently depending on whether the case involves a manager vs. a blue collar worker, a man vs. a woman, a Hispanic vs. a Caucasian, will ultimately lose credibility.
The HR Doctor urges that a county be mindful of past precedent and the importance of consistent application when it confronts a reported violation of the ethics policies.
Having an office of "professional standards," or an ethical standards review board of consider allegations of ethics policy violations can be a valuable tool.
The HR Doctor wishes you all the best.
(The HR Doctor was written by Phil Rosenberg, director of Human Resources, Broward County, Fla.)