We have participated in a number of discussions over the past two months about the need for - and benefits of - clear standards of conduct. We have also heard concerns that it would take many months before such standards could guide the actions taken of supervisors to ensure that every Kennett Township employee always behaves with integrity. We disagree. We believe that the process of establishing standards of conduct could begin tomorrow, and could draw together Township leaders, employees, and residents in a way that restores trust in our public institutions. We base this on collective experience leading a range of programs across the public and private sectors.
Some might argue that standards must be codified in ordinances to be effective, adding months to the process. We disagree. Any written statement - a resolution or even just an internal memo - can begin to define standards of conduct and offer clear guidance regarding employee behavior.
Some might argue that only written ordinances or a formally adopted code of conduct can be cited as the basis for terminating employment. We disagree, from both an ethical and a legal standpoint. Ethically, we argue that employees can - and should - be held immediately accountable for meeting any standard that has been clearly presented to them. Legally, Pennsylvania is an “at will” state, meaning that “an employer can fire an employee at any time and for any reason without recourse by the employee”, “unless they have an employment contract or statutory right that provides otherwise”.
Some might argue that it is best to develop an entire code of conduct and only then formally adopt it. We have found it can be very helpful to develop written standards incrementally, and capture these standards in an employee handbook that grows organically, as issues arise. Leaders can then discuss these real-life examples with employees (like decisions about when to disclose conflicts of interest discussed elsewhere), and draft language with their input.
Some might argue that the decision to invest in the development of an employee handbook sends a damaging message that employees cannot be trusted. Our experience tells us otherwise. Almost all employees behave ethically, but quickly identify those who do not, and can grow to distrust leaders who turn a blind eye to transgressions. Inviting employees to help develop standards builds trust in the workplace. Employees who are involved in the development of standards will buy into them, especially those standards that are relevant to their day-to-day work, and that hold transgressors accountable.
Supervisors who want to share the standard with the public can always capture it in a resolution. Involving members of the community in the development of the resolution establishing standards can help to restore public trust.
Some core standards can be established immediately. As discussed elsewhere, leaders should clarify that they have zero tolerance for lying, and for covering up mistakes.
If leaders insist on pursuing the development of a more formal code of conduct and related documents, they need not re-invent the wheel. Other Pennsylvania municipalities that have made significant progress in this area include Eastown Township, Whitehall Township, Upper Merion Township, and East Bradford Township.
In the coming weeks, we will post on OpenKennett a timeline indicating precisely how a more pro-active response could have resolved the concerns captured in the complaint within a matter of 1-2 weeks. We will also demonstrate how the implementation of a simple series of guidelines for staff regarding conflicts of interest could have easily prevented even the appearance of a conflict.
Of course, the challenge often lies not in setting standards but in implementing them consistently. We have seen too many leaders turn a blind eye to possible transgressions - sometimes even major ones. Sometimes leaders fail to act because clear expectations have not been set or communicated to staff, because they are uncomfortable confronting staff, or because documenting transgressions is painstaking - and painful - work. But in our experience, effective leaders must act quickly and decisively, because sometimes even apparently small transgressions discovered by a supervisor can signal a pattern of much more significant transgressions that can be toxic to an organization, and can take months (and tens of thousands of dollars) to clean up....