Millennium Post

Does it pay to be ethical?

Value of ethics in bureaucracy is significant not only from the perspective of ideal public service but also as a pragmatic career booster for civil servants who practice such principles

Ethics is defined as a set of 'moral principles that govern a person's behaviour or the conducting of an activity'. Ethics or ethical behaviour pertains to certain socially acceptable conduct that may not have been codified formally into a law or a rule, violation of which could lead to formal penalty or punishment. Unethical behaviour may be frowned upon. However, it would not normally lead to any action against the person until codified as a law or rule. Ethics' major concern includes the nature of ultimate values and standards by which human actions can be judged. And the purpose of ethics is to define acceptable human behaviour through knowing the types of actions, their consequences and the limits of both, the humans and their actions as well as their acceptability.

Ethics could have come into existence only when human beings started to reflect upon the best way to live. The idea perhaps was to evolve customary standards of right and wrong conduct. At some point of time in human history, it also got religious sanction or, in a sense, almost all religions adopted a code of conduct (like the Ten Commandments) that became an intrinsic part of their ethos.

In the context of bureaucracy, it evolved in a slightly different form as, over a period of time, a large part of ethical behaviour, i.e., what was expected of a civil servant, came to be codified and became a part of some legislation or a rule thereunder. Thus, dishonest conduct came to be punishable under the law. There is still, however, a large segment of ethical behaviour expected of a civil servant that is not codified.

Political alignment, if proved, can create problems for a serving civil servant as it violates a defined and codified code of conduct. However, a civil servant is expected to be politically neutral even if such conduct evidently or explicitly does not violate an express provision of the conduct rules. There is, therefore, a huge debate whether civil servants in general and those occupying constitutional positions in particular, like the Election Commissioner, should be allowed to join a political party after their tenure. Their joining a political party is not illegal by any stretch of the imagination but it does raise ethical issues.

Objectivity and impartiality is a virtue that a civil servant is supposed to possess and his advice or action is expected to conform to it. Civil servants afflicted with intellectual dishonesty do enormous damage to governance. This becomes even more important in situations relating to communal tension and more so during the election process. The conduct of elections is totally in the hands of civil servants. They cannot but be neutral as the entire democratic process is dependent on them.

There is no law that mandates civil servants to be humane and accessible. However, this is what is expected of them. These attributes can give an enormous amount of satisfaction to the officer themselves, apart from providing much-needed succour to the recipient of their behaviour. Over a period of time, such officers are respected and remembered. They become role models for others.

The rich and influential are capable of looking after themselves. It is the poor that need to be taken care of. Not all laws and rules are clearly defined. If a law needs to be interpreted, it should be done in the interest of the poor. A civil servant is expected to do that.

It is also the job of a civil servant to protect the interests of the organisation to which they belong. This may, on occasion, entail some sacrifice on their part. It would not only be ethical on their part to do so but it would also be practically beneficial as it could set an example for others to make similar sacrifices. The conduct of each officer is closely observed by those around them. Hence, they should be seen as taking a lead.

If an officer does not protect their colleagues and subordinates, they cannot be formally penalised. However, it is ethically incumbent upon them to offer this protection from unwarranted harassment or victimisation. Yet again, such conduct will be beneficial to the officer themselves even otherwise as they will be perceived as a person who stands by their colleagues. They will be recognised and respected for their conduct. In doing so, they will be displaying a leadership trait as well.

Appreciating good work is not only ethically warranted but also creates positive energy amongst team members. Everyone wants to be complimented but, more often than not, we are found wanting in appreciating the good work done by others. In this case too, it is not only ethically desirable for a civil servant to be appreciative of good work but it is practical as well. It boosts the morale of the team members.

The key question, therefore, is: why should a civil servant become ethical in their behaviour? The first step would be to appreciate the fact that ethical behaviour is the best not merely in the context of morality as an idealistic or altruistic concept, but is also the best in the context of their own career prospects. The reputation of an officer is progressively built on the basis of their ethical conduct and that can stand them in good stead in the future. Moreover, ethical behaviour also imparts an enormous amount of moral authority to the concerned officer. Their team will follow them wholeheartedly and not just because they are the boss. All this will get reflected in their performance and outcomes.

It is, therefore, beneficial for a civil servant to be ethical. It pays to be ethical.

Views expressed are personal

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