Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Ethical environment needs a makeover

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One-third of provincial government employees are "personally aware" of ethical misconduct and fraudulent activity in their workplace. Only half of them, however, reported it to their superiors because they didn't believe the offenders would be penalized, or because they feared being punished themselves for upsetting the apple cart.

Those are the disturbing findings of an investigation by Manitoba's auditor general, who surveyed 5,000 employees (about one-third of the 15,000 civil servants who work in core government departments) for their attitudes and understanding of honesty in the public service.

There's no evidence the government is lousy with brigands and very little proof workers would be punished for squealing, but that's what one-third of workers believe.

At a minimum, it suggests an unhappy workplace poisoned with mistrust and suspicion. At worst, there's more theft, fraud, ethical breaches and conflicts of interest still to be discovered.

It also shows, as the auditor states, that workers care about ethics, as does the public. In fact, governments across the board have been slow to respond to public anger and demands for stiffer policies, strict enforcement and more transparency in the way civil servants and politicians conduct their business.

The province's whistleblower legislation is supposed to provide protection for employees who wish to report suspected wrongdoing, but a large number aren't comfortable using it, while others don't know the name of the person designated to receive complaints.

The province says it accepts anonymous complaints, including trivial allegations not covered by the legislation, but the law clearly needs to be revised to reflect a series of shortcomings identified by the auditor.

The audit also discovered the province has been lax in enforcing its own rules on conflict of interest. New employees, for example, are required to sign a conflict-of-interest declaration, but only 28 per cent had complied. A large number of deputy ministers and assistant deputy ministers also have not been filing annual statements as required.

Training and communications on ethical standards need to be improved so employees understand what is expected.

Finally, the government needs a strategy to boost morale and employee satisfaction. Governments are notorious as difficult workplaces, but an environment where one-third of the employees suspect a colleague or boss of wrongdoing is a sign of serious internal problems.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 21, 2014 A10

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