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Leadership and ethical behaviour

The APS has a long history of emphasising high standards of ethical behaviour as a central component of public service culture. Public servants exercise authority on behalf of the Australian Government and manage significant financial resources on its behalf. Their actions directly affect the lives of the public and the confidence the public has in government. The Australian public, quite rightly, demands high standards of behaviour and ethical conduct from the people entrusted with this responsibility. It is partly in recognition of this that Section 35 of the Public Service Act 1999 requires SES employees to promote the APS Values and Employment Principles and compliance with the Code of Conduct by personal example and other means.25

It is well established that the most effective way of undermining organisational values is for leadership to contradict them silently by their own behaviour, and that leadership support is critical to ensuring organisational values are well integrated into an agency's systems, processes and procedures. Commission research also found that leadership is important in ensuring organisational values are understood by employees and applied to daily decision making.26 As a consequence, the Commission developed a model (updated in 2013) to assist agencies to embed the APS Values.27 The APS Values and Employment Principles provide the foundation for every management decision taken.28

Figure 2.17 shows APS employees consistently supported the view that their senior leaders, immediate supervisors and colleagues act in accordance with the APS Values.

Figure 2.17 Ethical behaviour by work group, supervisor and senior leader, 2013

Source: Employee census

 

In recent years, a range of topics and approaches have been used in the academic literature to investigate the relationship between ethical leadership, workplace behaviour and organisational outcomes. Ethical leadership has been found to have positive associations with wellbeing and job satisfaction, performance, employee engagement, cooperation and collaboration, ethical decision making, and moral reasoning.29 Ethical leadership has also been found to lead to reduced levels of workplace bullying.30

There is debate in the academic literature as to whether ethical leadership is a unique form of leadership or whether it is a component of existing leadership frameworks—for example, ‘transformational leadership’, ‘authentic leadership’ or ‘adaptive leadership’—all of which emphasise the importance of an ethical leadership base in behaviour.

Ethical leadership and employee engagement

Poor ethical leadership climates have been associated with organisational cultures that emphasise self-interest as the primary behaviour, while good climates have been associated with cultures where the primary behaviour is the wellbeing of others.31 The APS has a very strong foundation of ethical leadership. It is clear that when immediate supervisors and senior leaders are seen to behave ethically this has a substantial positive impact on all aspects of employee engagement, and most likely on the overall productivity of the workforce.

Figure 2.18 shows employees who indicated their SES ‘always or often’ behaved in accordance with the APS Values had higher engagement levels than those who did not. This result was consistent for immediate supervisors also—that is, employees who agreed their immediate supervisor behaved in accordance with the APS Values had higher engagement scores than those who did not.

Figure 2.18 Ethical leadership by SES and employee engagement, 2013

Source: Employee census

Ethical leadership and intention to leave

Figure 2.19 shows employees who intended to leave their agency ‘as soon as possible’ were less likely to agree their supervisor and senior leaders ‘always or often’ act in accordance with the APS Values. Where the perception is that senior leaders are not acting in accordance with the APS Values the impact on the employees' intention to leave the agency appears to be particularly powerful. Of those employees who reported they intended to leave their agency as soon as possible, less than 40% believed their senior leaders act in accordance with the APS Values.

Figure 2.19 Ethical leadership and intention to leave, 2013

Source: Employee census

Ethical leadership matters

In summary, when an APS leader is seen to model desired ethical behaviour, employees are more likely to regard the organisation in a positive light which supports reduced employee intentions to leave. The literature suggests there is also likely to be a reduction in counterproductive behaviours such as bullying.


Footnotes

25 Agency heads are also required to promote the APS Values and Employment Principles and comply with the Code of Conduct (sections 12 and 14 of the Public Service Act 1999).

26 Australian Public Service Commission, Embedding the APS Values, Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra, (2003).

27 Information on embedding the APS Values can be found at: http://www.apsc.gov.au/publications-and-media/current-publications/strengthening-values.

28 See Chapter 3 for a more detailed discussion of integrity and ethics.

29 DN Hartog and FD Belschak, ‘Work Engagement and Machiavellianism in the Ethical Leadership Process’, Journal of Business Ethics, (2012), vol. 107, no. 1, pp. 35–47; D Mayer, K Aquino, RL Greenbaum and M Kuenzi, ‘Who Displays Ethical Leadership and Why does it Matter? An Examination of Antecedents and Consequences of Ethical Leadership’, Academy of Management Journal, (2012), vol. 55, no. 1, pp. 151–171.

30 J Stouten, E Baillien, A Van den Broeck, J Camps, H De Witte and M Euwema, ‘Discouraging Bullying: The Role of Ethical Leadership and its Effects on the Work Environment’, Journal of Business Ethics, (2010), vol. 95, pp. 17–27.

31 F Karakas and E Sarigollu, ‘Benevolent Leadership: Conceptualization and Construct Development’, Journal of Business Ethics, (2012), vol. 108, no. 4, pp. 537–553.