Basic Ethical Principles Rewarded? Not Even Close

Senior level managers are performing their duties with the government in the “public trust” to ensure the taxpayers receive the best quality of service, free from fraud, waste and abuse. The author says there are three basic duties that go along with this responsibility and asks whether or not they are clearly defined in every agency’s core operating philosophies. His supposition? Not even close.

Partnerships in law firms, accounting firms, and boards of directors operate under three legal and ethical principles because the actions of one can have severe detrimental effects upon the rest of the entire organization. Fundamentally, these duties go to the heart of any relationship.  It is called “trust”.  This is especially true for senior level managers and executives in Government, because in their capacities they are performing their duties in the “public trust” to ensure that the American taxpayers, who are paying the bill, are receiving the best quality of service, free from fraud, waste and abuse.

  1. A Duty of Care: The duty of care defines a level of competence that is expected of any executive or manager that is commonly viewed as a level of care that an ordinarily prudent person would exercise as if the outcome affects them directly and materially.  In other words, these individuals owe the duty to exercise a constantly reasonable care when they operate as stewards for the organization.  Very often this responsibility is found in the preamble to many federal regulations, travel, procurement, etc.
  1. A Duty of Loyalty: The duty of loyalty is a standard of faithfulness for every executive or manager. It is the undivided allegiance when making decisions affecting the operations and the organization itself. This means that a person must always act in the best interests of the organization. The Ethics in Government Act, along with 18 USC, 201, forbids a federal employee from misusing public office for private gain. Too bad these rules seem to apply to everyone but the Congress. Federal executives, and employees at all levels, can face a conflict of interest in fact or appearance when they execute their responsibilities.
  1. A Duty of Obedience: The duty of obedience requires executives and managers to be faithful to the agency’s mission. They are not permitted to act in a way that is inconsistent with the core goals and objectives of the agency. This is basic for to the employee’s and the public’s trust that government operations are managed in a cost effective and efficient manner.

I would welcome a response from anyone reading this article to show me that these three principle duties can be found in their agency’s literature or core operating philosophies. Are these duties found in any SES, managers or supervisors performance standards? Are these individuals recognized or rewarded on these stated principles? The answer from this writer is “not even close.”

Being a front line supervisor is probably the worst job in all of government.  These individuals are constantly catching it from 360 degrees on the compass.  They are expected to get the work of their direct reports completed on time with a high degree of quality.

Managing employee attendance is a foremost responsibility of any supervisor/manager to ensure leave is only taken when warranted.  A supervisor’s responsibility is to maintain the highest level of attendance to increase productivity and the agency’s overall performance.  This is particularly true in a constrained budgetary environment, and it has become exponentially more difficult with the advent of alternate work schedule programs and the increasing span of control to cut costs.

Employee absenteeism is a significant problem for most organizations.  The high price of absenteeism can be measured in terms of lost productivity and its negative consequences on morale.  The cost of absence in government is often misunderstood and not given the attention it deserves because government does not have a profit motive, and salaries are a sunk cost.  According to SHRM, the total cost of paid time off as a percentage of payroll in 2013 was approximately 22 percent.

What does this have to do with the lead into this article?  In my opinion everything, because the front line supervisors are not being given the necessary support from their senior management to take action to correct negative behavior.  Let me try to illustrate this in two very recent events.

On July 23, 2014, the Air Force decision to remove Patrick G. Hollingsworth was reversed by the MSPB because his management could not prove his tardiness constituted AWOL and a violation of its established leave procedures (Hollingsworth vs. Department of the Air Force, 2014 MSPB 56).  The only dispute, in this case, was whether the appellant was required to be on duty during the periods for which the agency charged him with AWOL. The appellant was on a Maxiflex program. In fact, the agency could not establish that it even had core work hours.  After reading the case, I cannot imagine why the agency went forward in the first place to remove Mr. Hollingsworth, and to lose the case should not have come as a surprise.

Now, let’s examine the very recent decisions of another large Cabinet level agency in Washington, DC.  It has a collectively organized workforce, represented by an aggressive union, and it has a flexible work schedules program to include elements of an alternate work schedules program.  The agency had core hours, and employees on a flexible schedule were required to sign-in at the start of their workday, and to sign-out when they left for the day.

In a magnanimous gesture, the agency decided to abolish all sign-in/sign-out procedures, and eliminated the core hours.  This change was accomplished without the benefit of negotiations whereas the union was handed this wonderful gift at no cost.  It begs the question as to what was the motivation to do this since during the last term bargaining with the two unions the agency was successful in maintaining the core hours that existed under the previous  agreements.  With the one union the agency went to the Impasses Panel, and successfully argued status quo with respect to the core hours.  It is not clear why in the middle of the two current collective bargaining agreements the agency would just hand the unions something they were unable to get during the collective bargaining process.

In contract negotiations the role of the management team is to never lose sight of how any agreement will affect the front line supervisors and manager.  The cost of any appropriate arrangement must be priced out in either real dollars, the opportunity cost of time, or both.  Here there was no concession, and in the future if management wishes to reinstate core hours and sign-in procedures they will have to negotiate this and the union most assuredly will be looking for some other concession.

If the supervisors’ job to manage time and attendance was difficult before because of the agency’s myriad of work schedule programs, it has now become far more difficult because many of the tools to track the workforce’s attendance are gone.   I am aware of one situation a few years back where an employee took advantage of her boss’ early departure.  He worked a 7:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. schedule.  When he signed out at the end of his day she would occasionally take off to go shopping, and then return at the end of her workday to sign-out.  When he was apprised of this, he opined that why should he take action since he believed he would not be supported.

Under the Certified Financial Officers Act, federal agencies are audited every year to ensure that its systems have adequate internal controls to prevent fraud, waste, and abuse.  Among the things looked at to test an agency’s system of internal controls is managements’ attitude.  Stripping away the core hours, and sign-in/sign-out procedures does not reflect a positive approach and attitude towards having a strong internal controls.  While the motives towards eliminating these procedures may have been laudatory, the decision does not appear to give consideration to the duty of care or loyalty for those below the decision makers who are now put in a far more difficult position to manage the workforce time and attendance.  An unintended consequence is also the disincentive for people to seek supervisory positions if the atmosphere is a negative culture towards supporting your front line supervisors.

A duty of care, loyalty, and obedience is a two way street.  It has to permeate the culture throughout the entire organization.  The military knows this too well because lives and success are built upon this premise.  It is a model that civilian agencies may wish to adopt, and to build its human resources programs around these three principles.

About the Author

Since retiring in 2011 after nearly 40 years of federal service, Bob Dietrich has been active in training supervisors and HR staff on FLSA and FMLA. He has a three-day course that he can bring to your agency, and he may be reached through the website.