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Ethics Feature: The High Cost of Silence
Reprinted with permission from the June 2011 issue of Public Management (PM) magazine published and copyrighted by ICMA (International County/City Management Association), Washington, D.C.

Why reporting wrongdoing is essential

Whether on the front line 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. Everyone's conduct really does matter. And that's not just the management cliché of the month.

A collective commitment to raising the red flag when something unethical or illegal is taking place is critical to all. 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 bad guy 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.

Report It

Doing nothing is also like sitting on the sidelines while your colleague falls off the cliff. A public works supervisor, with 15 years on the job, was recently fired for his involvement in the theft of metal from a city demolition job. Sold for scrap, the metal had a value of $5,000.

Several other members of the crew were involved and received disciplinary action. Too bad that someone else on the job site who certainly heard about this scheme didn't point out to fellow workers that this "benefit" wasn't worth the risk. Oh, and also the likelihood that this wouldn't end well.

In another city, the topic of the day at the management team meeting was the recent dismissal of the information technology director. This individual had been recruited from the private sector with high promise for moving the city forward. But he lasted only about 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 an employee.

As members of the management team talked about their experiences with this individual, they were quite 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.

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 blog analysts.

The ICMA Code of Ethics establishes a uniform and high set of standards for the profession. In a complicated universe, it defines clear lines of acceptable conduct. Some ethical violations, like taking extra compensation or gifts, are obvious. They get the required attention of elected officials, other authorities, and the public. Usually they will be addressed by both the local government 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 really understood only by another professional in the field. Therein lies part of the value of self-policing.

Personal Muscle

After many years of discussion about whether members have an ethical obligation to report incidents of unethical conduct by peers, the ICMA Committee on Professional Conduct concluded that we do. In 2004, this guideline was added to the Code: "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.

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.

Martha Perego, ICMA-CM
ICMA Ethics Director
Washington, D.C.
Arizona City/County Management Association
1820 W. Washington Street, Phoenix, AZ 85007   •   Phone: (602) 258-5786   •   Fax: (602) 253-3874   •