Ethics in the Federal Government: Perceptions by Federal Employees

Chapter 1: Introduction to the Study

Ethics is a branch of philosophy that defines what is good for the individual and society (Krishnan, Krishnan & Pattanayak, 2014). Ethics play a role in shaping the long-term success of an organization (Krishnan, Krishnan & Pattanayak, 2014). Ethics are moral principles that govern a person’s behavior or the conducting of an activity (Oxford Dictionary). It establishes the nature of obligations, or duties, that people owe themselves and one another (Carrassi, 2014). In modern society, ethics defines how individuals, business professionals, and corporations choose to interact with one another (U.S. Legal, n.d.). The study of the relationship between ethics and government employees is vital in determining how ethics influence the federal government workplace environment. Management represents the decision-making influence in applying ethical behaviors in an organization (Chekwa, Ouhirra, Thomas & Chukwuanu, 2014).

Organizations will in fact engage in ethical practices for one of two reasons, one ethical in nature and one more machiavellian (Torres, 2015). The ethical motivation guiding business is related to a desire to do the right thing, without external or governmental constraint (Krishnan, Krishnan & Pattanayak, 2014). Employees are an integral part of the organization’s ethics (Joyner & Payne, 2002).

Casson (2013) highlighted ways in which ethics are inherent in all aspects of business, such as actions and decisions that are made by managers and employees. Ethical issues differ by the structure of governance, conduct by leadership, and are critical to resolving matters and building trust (Smit, 2013). Ethics is a structure for accountability, supervision, compliance with rules and obligations, and is necessary for the good of society (Carrassi, 2014).

Background of Ethics in the Federal Government

In many cases, governments are still trying to do business in ways that are based on conditions, priorities, and approaches that existed decades ago and are not well suited to addressing 21st century challenges (Nguyen & Pham, 2015). For example, some agencies do not yet have all the necessary abilities, more flexible legal authorities, and leadership and management capabilities to transform their cultures and operations (Ferrell, Fraedrich & Ferrell, 2015; Verschoor, 2014). Consequently, to successfully navigate transformations across the government, it must fundamentally reexamine not only business processes, but also outmoded organizational structures, management approaches, and in some cases, outdated missions (U.S. Government Accountability Office).

Organizational management, as a field and subject, continues to evolve (Rainey, 2009). The issue prevailing with regard to ethics and employees is that employees were not highly valued, and limited resources were provided for employee empowerment (Engelbrecht, Heine & Mahembe, 2014). Such a view gave way to the birth of ethics in the field of management, which was exposed by management intellectuals in the 1980s (Blaga, 2013). Similarly, organizational leadership evolved to the extent that a rise in democratic leadership styles occurred (Hassard, 2012). The importance and value of people to organizations began to appear in motivational and leadership theories (Devine, 2012).

Problem Statement

It is not known how federal employees perceive the ethics in the federal government workplace. Thus, this research explores how federal employees perceive the ethics in the workplace, and the impact of government efficacy. Existing literature and researchers emphasize moral principles, transparency, and value, which are necessary elements of business ethics (Bota-Avram, 2013; Ionescu, 2012; Kearney & Kruger, 2013; Nicolaescu, 2013; Stefanescu, 2014; Verchoor, 2013). Managers who uphold ethical practices are able to manage business operations justly and fairly (Chekwa, Ouhirra, Thomas & Chukwuanu, 2014).

Businesses have complete freedom to do as they will, if accountability is unclear and not well defined (Minculete & Olar, 2014). Individual principles are essential and must be in compliance (Fulop, 2014). The presence of an appropriate ethical code exemplifies a display of business ethics (Nainawat & Meena, 2013).

Businesses have complete freedom to do as they will, if accountability is unclear and not well defined (Minculete & Olar, 2014). Individual principles are essential and must be in compliance (Fulop, 2014). The presence of an appropriate ethical code exemplifies a display of business ethics (Nainawat & Meena, 2013).

Ethics necessitates equally self-awareness and a cognizance of the societies in which life evolves (Woermann, 2013). The perception of ethics as relating to business embraces numerous implications and suggestions, and is the center of human conduct (Kasasbeh, Harada, Osman & Aldalayeen, 2014). Ethical behavior enhances performance (Rihma & Meel, 2013). The significant aspects for upholding the ethical conduct of agencies are instituting ethics, governmental structures, government efficacy, governing value and quality, and control of exploitation (Bota-Avram, 2013).

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore and understand through the obtaining of information from key participants, how Federal Government employees perceive ethics in a federal government agency. The overall aim of this study was to draw upon the expertise, work experience and the vision of management and employees to investigate whether ethics are necessary to operate effectively. Purposeful sampling was used for the recruitment of participants for this study. Purposeful sampling is commonly used in qualitative research. It involves selecting research participants according to the needs of the study (Glaser, 2002) in that researchers choose participants who can give a richness of information that is suitable for detailed research (Patton, 2002). The selection criteria for inclusion were professionals who could articulate their experiences as it relates to the phenomena being investigated. The research results of this study identifies needs and gaps, and provide insightful information for improving government efficacy.

The researcher explored the individual lived experiences and expertise of the key participants using the participant interview questions (Appendix A). The participants were chosen because of their unique status, experience, and knowledge of the federal government workplace. Interviews were conducted after permission from the Columbia Southern University’s Institutional Review Board to conduct the study was obtained. Interviewing is the principal method of gathering information in qualitative research to guide the participant in answering a particular research question (Stuckey, 2013). The interviews were conducted face-to-face at the participant’s work site during non-duty hours (Appendix B).

Research Questions

Ethics is a subject of much research (Bryman & Bell, 2011). The concept of ethics is a branch of philosophy that defines what is good for the individual and society (Krishnan, Krishnan & Pattanayak, 2014). Ethics exemplifies acceptable techniques to operate a business (Coglianese, Healey, Keating & Michael, 2004). The phenomenon being studied is how federal employees perceive ethics within the federal government. The following research questions guided this qualitative study:

RQ1: How do federal government employees perceive ethics at a federal government agency located in the Eastern United States?

RQ2: How does leadership behavior, as perceived by government employees, affect the influence of ethics at a federal government agency located in the Eastern United States?

Advancing Scientific Knowledge

A gap exists in the literature necessitating further exploration to investigate ethical behaviors in the federal government workplace. The agency theory and deontological ethical theory were employed in this study to investigate the problem statement and to answer the research questions. The deontological ethical theory and agency theory emphasizes the role of governance in improving business ethics, and ethics-based influences on business (Nicolaescu, 2013).

The deontology theory is a part of philosophy that takes instantaneous prominence in this study because the theory relates to apart of ethics which involves the duties and conduct of individuals who practice a particular occupation. (Constantin, 2014). Deontology deals with the correct standard of actions for every person (van Staveren, 2013). The determination of what actions are ethical and what actions are ethically offensive clearly affects how a person lives, if that person is conscientious (MacIntyre, 1990). However, a part of human nature is understanding one’s conduct, and in that fashion to improve explicit ethics (Rasmussen, 2014).

The agency theory is based on the assumptions that when proprietorship is divided from the governance of a large business, the supervisor is substituting as a manager on behalf of the proprietor and is inclined to making ethical hazards such as evading and seizing prosperity at the cost of the principal (Shane, 1998). The agency theory focuses on the notion that in a contemporary business, there is a division between proprietorship and management, causing organizational expenses related with solving the conflict concerning the proprietors and the manager (Berle & Means, 1932; Jensen & Meckling, 1976). The division between proprietorship and management imply that management cannot be trustworthy, which calls for stern observation in order to safeguard the investor’s interest (Hendry & Kiel, 2004).

Significance of the Study

The significance of this study is that it provides employee perspectives to understand the role of ethics in a federal government agency. Researchers suggest that some organizations have not explicitly demonstrated commitment toward ethics (Chekwa et al., 2014).  Since governance emerges as one of the leading critical factors in achieving organizational effectiveness, the moral responsibilities of organizations are important regardless of their type, size, or geographical location (Wright, 2014). Considering the fact that society represents a global economy, the concept of ethics is a topic of global concern with worldwide implications (Nainawat & Meena, 2013).

This study, which addresses/defines ethics within the federal government, is important for several reasons. First, it brings the strengths of many governance structures to the field in the aftermath of scandals such as Maxwell, Enron, European Commission, and WorldCom, which attracted global attention (Willits & Nicholls, 2014). Second, this study compiles a diverse wealth of potentially meaningful information/data obtained from federal employees in their respective fields that can be used to create an ethics training program. Finally, it brings this information to a wider audience of government agencies, practitioners, and organizations to assist them in the development of their own ethics policies.

Ethics is a structure of moral values (Beauchamp & Childress, 2001), and is needed to incorporate into day-to-day business practices. Managers have the responsibility to practice an ethical course of action to direct business in its entirety in an attempt to achieve objectives (Casson, 2013). Ethics requires a common and comprehension complexity, which compels society to stay alert to uphold accountable thoughts and actions (Woermann, 2013).

Rationale for Methodology

The qualitative methodology is best suited for this study because it provides an understanding and interpretation of social relations (Stuckey, 2013). The qualitative approach was employed to understand how federal government employees perceive the ethics. Additionally, the methodology provides an understanding of how the behavior of leadership, as perceived by government employees, affects the ethics at a federal government agency. This research design was appropriate because the responses of the participants can be shared and used in the development of an ethics training model and/or protocols.

The interview is one of the methods for collecting data in a qualitative study because the holistic accounts of activities or events are emphasized in detail (Isaacs, 2014). The interview provides a source for discovering an individual’s inward emotional feelings, state and views (Jamshed, 2014). Government employees were interviewed via the use of open-ended participant interview questions (Appendix A). Individual interviews were conducted until data saturation occurred. Narrative interview data were analyzed to extract the essence of the lived experiences from the perspective of the participants. The common research objective focus of a qualitative study is viewing the research through a wide-angle lens, and examining the breadth and depth of phenomena (Kemparaj & Chavan, 2013).

Nature of the Research Design for the Study

The phenomenological research design is ideal for this qualitative study because the design will describe the participant’s phenomenon in detail, draw results based on subjective facts, and understand the importance of the participants’ experiences (Corley, 2011). Phenomenology is considered a process as well as a method, and the procedure involves studying a small number of subjects through extensive and prolonged engagement to develop patterns and relationships of meaning (Isaacs, 2014). During this process, the researcher sets aside his/her own experiences in order to understand those of the participants in the study (Creswell, 2009). The focus of phenomenological research designs explore a phenomenon of individual, normal, and societal impact from a perspective of the participants derived from their lived experiences (Abawi, 2012). Thus, phenomenological research designs are used to explore the different ways in which people conceptualize the world around them (van Wijk, 2014).

The essential criterion of a phenomenological research design is that participants have experienced the phenomenon of interest (Isaacs, 2014). Phenomenological designs include empirical, hermeneutic, and heuristic (Chan, Fung & Chien, 2013). The number of participants in a phenomenological study varies, but data should be collected until saturation is determined and achieved through two possible approaches: a heuristic code that illuminates the relations of language, or numbered occurrences that are resolute from the data relations (Stuckey, 2013). This study explored the lived experience of the participants in order to understand the essence of a person’s account of their experiences as it relates to the phenomena in question—ethics in the federal government.

Definition of Terms

This list consists of terms, which are defined to understand significant concepts of this study.

Ethics. The correct way to run a business by applying moral and ethical standards to daily business operations (Casson, 2013).

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). The obligation of an organization to safeguard the fundamental human rights of employees (Nissanka, 2011).

Governance.  Good governance is about the processes for making and implementing decisions (Wright, 2014). It’s not about making ‘correct’ decisions, but about the best possible process for making those decisions. Good decision-making processes, and therefore good governance, share several characteristics. All have a positive effect on various aspects of local government including consultation policies and practices, meeting procedures, service quality protocols, officer conduct, role clarification, and good working relationships (Good Governance, 2012).

Assumptions, Limitations, Delimitations

The following assumptions were made in this study:

  1. Participants would answer the research questions truthfully based on the interview questions. All participants were informed of hazards, and given a chance to ask questions or withdraw from the study without prejudice or punishment by way of a signed consent letter. Additionally, research participants were informed that participation in the study was voluntary.
  2. Interview questions will accurately depict the influence of business ethics in the federal government. The participants lived experiences would add to the body of knowledge in regards to influence of business ethics in the federal government.

The following limitations were present in this study:

  1. The research study occurred at a single point in time. The results of the study

were based on the perceptions of government employees as to the influence

of ethics in a federal government agency.

  1. The sample population was purposefully limited to federal government

employees working at the same agency who could best perceive the

ethics in the organization, therefore, minimizing generalization.

The following delimitations were present in this study:

  1. This study included topics of ethics and governance structures. Exploring one topic would have made the study too broad. Perceptions by federal employees gave way to a larger scope for the study.
  2. This study included only federal government employees. The exclusion of other employees would remove the intricacies associated with other governmental structures.

Chapter 2: Literature Review

A thorough review of existing literature indicates that some organizations have not explicitly demonstrated commitment toward business ethics. The ethical duties of businesses and organizations are essential regardless of their industry, employee size, location, or ranking (Nguyen & Pham, 2015). The Ethics in Government Act is a U.S. federal law passed in 1978 (U.S. Office of Government Ethics, 1978). The Act also created the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (USOGE), an executive agency responsible for issuing rules and regulations about ethical conduct and financial disclosure, providing training in ethics, monitoring the ethics of practices in departments and agencies, and giving guidance on matters of ethics (U.S. Office of Government Ethics, 1978)….

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