Ethics and Public Service
By Dr. Herbert Fain, Houston Graduate School of Theology Professor of Legal and Social Ethics
When I was invited to speak at Texas State University, I gave a speech entitled “The Case for a Zero Gift Policy.” The subject matter was ethics. Therefore, I spoke on what an employee can do when a local government has no guidelines or ethics policy.
I shared a story with the audience: One employee was charged with reviewing engineering contracts and making recommendations. This employee, let’s call him “Roger,” met with a local engineer trying to obtain contracts. The engineer was appreciative for the time spent; therefore, he purchased an expensive racquet and balls the next day and left them at Roger’s office. When Roger returned from lunch, he saw the equipment. There was no policy prohibiting the gifts and Roger greatly appreciated the kindness. In business, gestures of appreciation are commonplace, but in government they are not customary practice. Despite the fact there was no policy prohibition or ethics training violation, Roger chose the wisest course of action. He did the right thing by returning the gift with a thank you note and a logical explanation. In addition, Roger was not only concerned about damaging his own reputation. If Roger accepted the gift and recommended the company for work, he was concerned that his recommendation would not be accepted.
While speaking to the audience, I communicated to them why I agreed with Roger. You can’t go wrong by setting a higher standard for yourself. For Roger’s case, a zero gift policy, in the absence of policy and ethics training, is a wise course of action. Employees must not be or appear to be in a conflict of interest. They must not appear to be misusing public resources. That was my belief, then, after teaching ethics. Now, after reflecting on this issue, I believe employees would benefit by having more ethics training. My friends in the legal profession tell me that the emphasis on ethics has made a positive impact on the legal profession. They still have attorneys whose conduct is disappointing to the profession; however, ethics training and other measures have increased respect and public perception of the profession.
Public respect and approval are essential for people who are distributing goods and services. That’s why ethics training improves behavior and public perception. Additionally, a zero-gift policy for public employees can also improve perception and support. Everyone benefits when public employees have guidelines and ethics training. Employees must be taught what is expected of them. The public will have more confidence in government workers because they will see them as ethical and unwilling to give an unfair advantage to one businessperson over another. With ethics training and policy, everyone wins.