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Ethics and integrity

Ethics and integrity

As a member of the Commission's Executive, I provided support to the Commissioner with his responsibilities of promoting the APS Values, the Employment Principles and the Code of Conduct. The review work gives me an understanding of the way agencies both succeed and struggle in implementing elements of the human capital framework. My delegates assist with strategic analysis of the operation of both the performance management and Code of Conduct frameworks in the APS, and the insights gained from this work assist agencies and the Commission in refining and tailoring initiatives in these fields.

I continued to chair the Ethics Advisory Group of agencies. This group enables the Commission to draw on agency experience when developing values- and ethics-related policies and services to address existing and emerging issues affecting the APS. There were two meetings in 2013–14. Both meetings considered progress in embedding the APS Values and issues arising from the review casework.

The group provided feedback to the Commission on revisions to important guidance material that assists agencies in embedding the APS Values and Employment Principles—Handling misconduct: A human resources practitioner's guide to the reporting and handling of suspected and determined breaches of the APS Code of Conduct(Handling misconduct) and APS Values and Code of Conduct in practice: A guide for official conduct for APS employees and agency heads.In addition, the group discussed preparations for the PID Act and the implications of changes to the Privacy Act for employment practice.

I also chaired the Ethics Contact Officer Network, which is a forum for discussion, information-sharing and exchange of resources including good practice advice on matters relating to ethics in the APS. Three well-attended meetings were held, focusing on the following themes:

  • the introduction of the PID Act
  • the complexities of after-hours conduct and the risk it presents for agencies and the APS
  • the areas of focus for the revisions to Handling misconduct.

During the year I met with representatives from the Australian Commission for Law Enforcement Integrity (ACLEI) to discuss issues of mutual interest and participated in a discussion panel at a Community of Practice for Corruption Prevention. All but one of the agencies subject to ACLEI's jurisdiction are in the APS. The sharing of information and experience enhances the ability of the Commonwealth to address integrity concerns and cross-jurisdictional issues in an integrated manner.

Box M3: Code of Conduct sanction decision—reduction in classification

An employee was reduced in classification to Executive Level 1 for sending an email to a colleague that was aggressive and offensive in nature. The employee acknowledged the breach of section 13(3) of the Code of Conduct but argued that the sanction was extreme and not commensurate with the breach.

The Merit Protection Commissioner considered the nature and seriousness of the conduct and a previous warning about the inappropriate tone of some of the employee's emails. The employee accepted that the email had been intemperate, but did not accept that it had been harassing. The Merit Protection Commissioner considered that a reasonable person would conclude that the email to the colleague would humiliate and offend and also cause unnecessary hurt and distress. That the employee would send such an email, having previously been warned about sending inappropriate emails, demonstrated that they were dismissive of or uncaring about any offence the email may have caused and that the behaviour was characteristic. A concern therefore remained that the behaviour might be repeated.

The employee raised a number of mitigating circumstances, including that the email needed to be considered in context, which included the particular work environment; that the recipient was a peer and not a subordinate; and that the relationship was complicated. The Merit Protection Commissioner accepted that the employee's relationship with the recipient was complicated, but noted that employees were nevertheless required to act in a way that was respectful and courteous, regardless of the employee's views about the relationship or the fact that the recipient was a peer. The Merit Protection Commissioner did not accept that the use of ‘rugged’ language in the workplace excused using language towards an individual that was personalised, belittling and offensive.

The employee also disputed that they had failed to demonstrate leadership behaviour, and provided references as evidence of their leadership and management skills. The Merit Protection Commissioner considered that a senior employee could have been expected not only to be fully aware of the effect of their behaviour in the workplace but also to take on board feedback from managers. Employees at Executive Level 2 are expected to be able to see things from others' perspectives, anticipate their reactions and use appropriate strategies to resolve conflicts. It was found that the employee did not demonstrate leadership behaviour in these respects.

The Merit Protection Commissioner considered that a further reduction in classification to the APS level might have been warranted but for other factors, including a medical condition and positive character references. In all the circumstances, the Merit Protection Commissioner was satisfied that the reduction in classification to Executive Level 1 was an appropriate sanction.

I am also a member of, and provide secretariat services to, the Integrity Agencies Group. The group enables information-sharing, understanding and collaboration between statutory office holders and agencies with responsibility for integrity issues. The meetings are aimed at supporting a whole-of-APS approach to maintaining a strong and ethical public service.