Cornell Local Roads Program


Public officials from the White House to city and county offices are in the news for ethics violations and worse. A number of them are protesting their innocence. It’s obvious that ethics can make or break a career in public service, so it’s important to know what’s involved. What are the rules? Who is governed by them? What can happen to someone accused of an ethics violation? Ethics can be confusing and intimidating. Quite often, we hear stories about people getting into ethical problems without realizing it. There are a few simple logical rules to follow in order to stay out of trouble.

1. Cash Your Check

What you are paid and your other compensations, such as vacation and sick leave, are all you are entitled to for doing the job you signed on to do. Some people feel that they don’t get paid enough for what they do. If you feel this way, talk to your boss, apply for a raise or promotion, or look elsewhere. You cannot accept anything of value as a gift just for doing your job. You also cannot accept favors from anyone who has pursued or is pursuing a contract with your agency.

2. Pay Your Own Way

It is okay to be friendly with contractor or consultant personnel. More work gets done in a cooperative relationship than in an adversarial one. But be careful! If you go to a sporting event or any entertainment or party, pay your own way. It is usually alright to socialize with people who have contracts with your agency, as long as you don’t accept gifts or favors from them. For instance, you can play golf or go fishing with someone who has a contract with your agency, but pay your own greens fees and your share of the cost of the fishing trip. There are times when you could be put into an ethical bind because of a job offer for when you retire or for your relatives.

3. Do Your Job

Competence is another area of concern for public employees. You must do work you are qualified for or supervise the people doing the work. Don’t do work outside your area of expertise unless it is a learning process, and you are supervised by someone who is teaching you a trade or area of competence. Possibly the most ethical thing you can do if you are a supervisor is to let the people who should be doing the work do the work. Don’t micromanage, second guess, or take authority away from your subordinates.

4. Don’t Hire Family

Most public works agencies restrict family members from working closely with each other. Sometimes this may be difficult if you get a promotion to an area in which you supervise a relative. Check with your Human Resources Section or your State Ethics Board to be sure you can accept the promotion. If you don’t ask, it may look like you are trying to hide something. You may wonder why there is a problem with supervising your relatives. If you are in business and hire family, it may be a great idea. If you are dealing with public funds, the rules are not so liberal.

Unfortunately, people are all too willing to believe that public employees are incompetent, crooked, or both. Don’t let your name be associated with any unethical behavior. Your reputation is precious and very difficult to recover once it has been damaged


Winter 2016

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This work by the Cornell Local Roads Program (CLRP) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.