Ethical conduct – Upholding appropriate behaviour

In this section:

Through the people it employs, government undertakes vital activities and creates opportunities for the community, and is charged with the proper stewardship of public resources. Therefore, government employees are expected to uphold the highest levels of ethical conduct in the performance of their work duties.

While it may not be of an illegal nature, unethical behaviour can have serious consequences if not addressed, such as decreased productivity and damage to brand and reputation. Where public authorities manage operations across multiple sites, including regional areas, the oversight, monitoring and management of behaviour presents unique challenges.

This year, there continued to be a low level of unethical behaviour in the WA public sector, with fewer than four breaches of ethical codes per 1000 employees. As many matters may originate with employee reports of unethical behaviour, confidence in reporting remains important for the sector.

As per previous years, where unethical conduct does occur, it primarily relates to infrequent episodes of unprofessional behaviour rather than systemic maladministration. With written warnings and reprimands being the most common outcome across government, most instances of unethical behaviour would not meet the threshold of minor misconduct.

The number of public interest disclosures remains low this year. Public authorities continue to educate their employees to raise awareness about the disclosure process.

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Monitoring and managing behaviour

Generally, employees exercise good judgement and discharge their responsibilities in line with public sector values and standards. However, given the possible consequences of workplace behaviour, public authorities have sound processes for examining concerns or claims.

In the 2015 employee perception survey (EPS), public sector respondents were asked about any unethical behaviour they had observed over the preceding 12 months. This behaviour would likely be managed in the workplace using a combination of disciplinary, grievance resolution, complaints management and substandard performance processes.

Most employees reported rarely observing unethical behaviour over the year. However, for the minority who had more frequently witnessed it, this workplace behaviour most commonly took the form of unprofessional conduct such as inappropriate language
(12% frequently observed). Staff in regional locations were more likely than staff in the metropolitan area to report they had never witnessed unprofessional conduct.

Minor misconduct

Since 1 July 2015, notifications of suspected minor misconduct have been made to the Public Sector Commission rather than the Corruption and Crime Commission for public sector entities, government trading enterprises (GTEs), local governments and public universities under the Corruption, Crime and Misconduct Act 2003.

Minor misconduct involves behaviour of such a significant nature that it could reasonably lead to the termination of employment. However, most misconduct issues arising in the workplace are unlikely to meet this threshold and will not need to be notified. These matters will continue to be more appropriately managed by the employing authority through relevant processes as described in this chapter.

Grievance resolution

Staff grievances were usually about inappropriate workplace behaviour or bullying by colleagues.

Conflicts between staff can often be informally managed by supervisors or human resources staff. However, in some situations, employees may feel resolution is impossible through informal mechanisms and will formally lodge a grievance.

In 2014/15, public sector entities reported formally processing 231 grievances, compared with 245 in the previous year. These typically involved allegations of interpersonal conflict, bullying and inappropriate behaviour in the workplace and represented a low level of grievances across the sector at around two per 1000 employees.

The Commission's inaugural integrity and conduct survey (ICS) explored the same issue for local governments, boards and committees, public universities and GTEs. The authorities responding to the survey reported managing 414 grievances8 throughout 2014/15, most commonly involving inappropriate behaviour in the workplace or bullying.

Disciplinary processes

Effective disciplinary processes enable suspected breaches of codes of conduct to be addressed in a timely, confidential and fair manner.

This year, 45% of public sector entities reported they had completed disciplinary processes. Almost half of these (48%) reported completion within 3 months on average, and most of these (88%) completed disciplinary processes within 6 months (compared to 80% in 2014).

There continues to be fewer than four breaches of ethical codes per 1000 employees in the public sector, representing a low level of unethical behaviour.

Table 3.1 shows the most common breach of ethical codes overwhelmingly related to inappropriate behaviour during working hours, such as disrespecting co-workers and using inappropriate language. This was also the case in 2013/14, and mirrors the results of the 2015 EPS as previously discussed in this chapter.

Table 3.1 Alleged breaches of ethical codes reported by public sector entities, 2014/15

 

Number of completed processes

% of total where breach found

 

Total

Breach found

Inappropriate behaviour of employees during working hours

277

118

43

Falsification of information or records

50

30

60

Improper use of public resources (e.g. vehicles)

52

26

50

Fraudulent or corrupt behaviour

44

26

59

Inappropriate access of confidential information

35

20

57

Inappropriate behaviour of employees outside working hours

24

18

75

Unauthorised disclosure of information

38

18

47

Misuse of drugs or alcohol

31

14

45

Failure to manage conflicts of interest

24

13

54

Improper use of internet or email

30

10

33

Bullying

20

8

40

Workplace theft

21

5

24

Inappropriate acceptance of gifts or benefits

3

1

33

Other elements (e.g. failure to follow proper process/policy/instruction, assault, neglect of duty)

107

50

47

TOTAL

1151(a)

516(b)

45

Note: A completed process can be counted against more than one type of breach.

(a) Includes 395 processes from the Department of Education where the Department reported they could not be classified according to these types.

(b) Includes 159 processes from the Department of Education where the Department reported they could not be classified according to these types. The Department noted, however, that the majority were attributed to the area of 'inappropriate behaviour'.

Sources: PSES and ICS

Where breaches were found, the most common outcomes were overwhelmingly reprimands or formal written warnings, as shown in Table 3.2. This was the same as the previous year and indicates most instances of unethical behaviour, where they occur, would not meet the threshold of minor misconduct.

Table 3.2 Outcomes of breaches of ethical codes, 2014/15

 

Number of outcomes

Reprimand

273

Formal written warning

253

Termination of employment

52

No sanction imposed for reasons other than employee resignation

41

Counselling/dispute resolution

37

Training and development

29

Improvement notice

22

Deductions from salary by way of a fine

17

Performance management

13

Reduction in salary

8

Reduction in classification

5

Further employment contract not offered

4

Employee transferred

4

Reassignment of duties

3

Other outcomes (e.g. written apology, localised management)

7

TOTAL

772(a)

Note: A completed process can be counted against more than one type of outcome.

(a) Includes 4 outcomes where entities reported the type of outcome could not be identified.

Sources: PSES and ICS

Disciplinary matters across all types of government authorities most commonly related to personal behaviour during working hours, such as inappropriate language or disrespecting co-workers.

In the 2015 ICS, local governments, boards and committees, public universities and GTEs were also asked about the types of disciplinary matters they had managed.

As shown in Table 3.3, breaches relating to inappropriate personal behaviour during working hours were more common for these authorities than the public sector. Formal written warnings were the most common type of outcome, indicating most instances of unethical behaviour, where they occur, would not meet the threshold of minor misconduct.

Table 3.3 Alleged breaches of staff conduct codes and policies in local governments, boards and committees, universities and GTEs, 2014/15

 

Number of completed processes

% of total where breach found

 

Total

Breach found

Inappropriate behaviour of employees during working hours

324

271

84

Misuse of drugs or alcohol

47

46

98

Bullying

74

40

54

Falsification of information or records

32

32

100

Improper use of public resources (e.g. vehicles)

35

31

89

Improper use of internet or email

27

26

96

Fraudulent or corrupt behaviour

36

25

69

Inappropriate access of confidential information

15

11

73

Failure to manage conflicts of interest

21

10

48

Workplace theft

12

9

75

Unauthorised disclosure of information

12

8

67

Inappropriate acceptance of gifts or benefits

6

6

100

Other elements (e.g. failure to follow proper process/policy/instruction)

74

54

73

TOTAL

715

569

80

Note: A completed process can be counted against more than one type of breach.

Source: ICS

Complaints

Public authorities may receive a range of other complaints from outside the organisation that do not necessarily lead to formal disciplinary processes. Information about complaints informs the integrity landscape and the assessment of misconduct risks in public authorities.

Twenty-eight per cent of local governments, boards and committees, public universities and GTEs that completed the ICS received complaints about staff behaviour in 2014/15. Complaints were most often about inappropriate personal behaviour (such as language, gestures or phone manner), customer service quality, disagreement with staff decisions (for example around licensing) or use of public resources (such as unsafe driving of government vehicles). The universities also received some complaints about teaching quality and perceived fairness of assessment.

Bullying

Perceived bullying rates continue to be lower in WA than in other Australian jurisdictions.

Courtesy, consideration and sensitivity amongst employees are essential to an ethical public sector. However, it is important to distinguish bullying from other forms of workplace behaviour, such as taking legitimate management action.

During the preceding 12 months, 10% of EPS respondents felt they had been bullied in their workplace (same result as in 2014). This was reported as typically constituting verbal abuse and criticism, dissemination of false information or rumours, and behaviour contributing to employee isolation or exclusion.

Rates of perceived bullying by employees continue to be lower in WA than in other Australian jurisdictions, with between 17 and 26% of employees in other jurisdictions reporting being subject to bullying, where information was available.9

Reporting unethical behaviour

Building confidence in reporting will strengthen the ethical culture of public authorities.

All staff should feel they can report behaviour not in keeping with their workplace culture, without fear of recrimination.10 Where a strong ethical culture is in place, employees will, to a degree, self-police.

In general, public sector employees indicate they understand how to report unethical behaviour (83% of 2015 EPS respondents). However, only 56% who witnessed unethical behaviour over the preceding year reported it at least some of the time. This is similar to responses provided in previous years.

The Commission will continue to assist public authorities to build employee confidence in reporting as part of their integrity promotion functions.

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Public interest disclosure

Across the board, Australian legislation requires government to have internal procedures for facilitating disclosures, and also for protecting and supporting employees who report behaviour.11

Researchers from Griffith University are currently collaborating with integrity agencies from around the country to examine organisational responses to employee reporting of unethical behaviour. Recently awarded funding under the Australian Research Council's Linkage Projects scheme, the project will identify the factors that influence organisational responses, provide a research basis for future reform of policies and law, and set benchmarks for national and international comparisons.

In WA, the Public Interest Disclosure Act 2003 (PID Act) provides protection for those making disclosures about behaviour and those who are the subject of disclosures.

Employee awareness and confidence

It is important that systems, policies and processes are not only in place, but are communicated to employees and inspire confidence in their use.

Fifty-five per cent of 2015 EPS respondents indicated they know where to go to make a disclosure, down from last year's result (63%). However, for those who knew how to make a disclosure, 65% indicated they would make one if they became aware of public interest information (compared to 69% last year). This suggests that, while strategies to improve awareness are needed, employee generally have confidence in disclosure polices and processes.

Organisational strategies

Public authorities are required to facilitate the management of disclosures in accordance with the PID Act. As part of these requirements, most public authorities (91%) reported designating at least one occupant of a specified position to receive disclosures.

Sixty-three per cent of public authorities reported publishing internal procedures for disclosures, same as last year. Awareness raising strategies most commonly used by authorities were publishing the names of PID officers, ensuring PID officers attend the Commission's training, and publishing information regarding the Commission's advisory service.

One public authority reported it had investigated allegations of non-compliance with the PID Act during 2014/15. It was alleged that an incorrect decision had been made as to whether a disclosure was appropriate for the purposes of the PID Act, and in response to the allegations, the authority proceeded to investigate some aspects of the disclosure.

Disclosures

This year, a total of 53 disclosures were reported as received by public authorities (compared to 52 in the previous year). Issues raised continue to represent a very small proportion of all matters considered by public authorities (for example, more than 20 times as many disciplinary processes were undertaken in 2014/15).

Of the 53 disclosures received, 14 were assessed by public authorities as appropriate for the purposes of the PID Act. In the 2014/15 reporting period, 23 distinct matters were covered in the 14 PIDs assessed as appropriate. These matters related to improper conduct (11); alleged offences under written law (3); substantial irregular or unauthorised use of public resources (3); substantial mismanagement of public resources (3); and acts or omissions that involve a substantial and specific risk of injury to public health (1), harm to environment (1), or prejudice to public safety (1).

Three disclosures were referred to another body for investigation and two were not investigated as provided for under the PID Act.

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8 Two universities reported they use the terms 'grievances' and 'complaints' interchangeably, and as such do not discriminate between staff grievances and student complaints.

9 17% in the APS, 19% in Victoria, 18% in Queensland and 23% in New South Wales. Definitions of bullying may differ between jurisdictions – for further information see Appendix B.

10 Kasalana 2015, How do we promote ethical behaviour?

11 Blueprint for Free Speech 2014, Whistleblower protection laws in G20 countries - priorities for action

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Page last updated 18 November 2015