How to Incorporate Ethics Into Your Way of Thinking

If you are a federal employee, similar to being “telework-ready,” in the context of emergency preparedness, you should always be “ethics-ready.” As a public servant, you are charged with fulfilling an important mission in the interest of the public. As part of your duties and responsibilities, you are required to comply with an array of ethics rules and regulations that largely derive from the 14 Principles of Ethical Conduct.

Noncompliance can have serious and significant consequences. It is difficult, if impossible, to quantify the cost of damage that results from the loss of integrity or even the perception that such loss has occurred. Such incidents are extremely damaging and may result in costly ramifications to organizations and individuals. For further reading on this subject, I encourage you to read the U.S. Office of Government Ethics Conflict of Interest Prosecution Survey. The cases in the publication underscore the critical importance of incorporating ethics into your way of thinking as you carry out your critical responsibilities.

So, how does one remain “ethics-ready?” This is not meant to be provided or received as official advice, which would come from your ethics official, but I will offer some key information and strategies to use as a guide to be prepared:

1. Get educated and be mindful

Many federal officials are required to complete mandatory ethics training that, at minimum, includes content about financial conflicts of interest, impartiality, misuse of position and gifts. There are many more rules that exist, but I will not cover them all.  The takeaway is to approach your assignments with the rules in mind.

It is important to know that you will likely receive ethics guidance at various points in your career, and based on the situation, the advice will change. For example, if you have a change in financial interests, your spouse changes employers, or you begin seeking non-federal employment, it should prompt a question in your mind as to whether the changes might affect your ability to perform your work assignments.

If you are considering federal employment or a change to another agency, learn about the ethics regulations at that new agency.

2. Get advice and follow it

Unless you are an ethics official, I am not suggesting that you memorize or interpret the ethics statutes, federal and agency regulations and related legal guidance. You have ethics officials in your organization who have the expertise to assist you in explaining the requirements and providing you with ethics advice.

You need to know that it is your responsibility to comply with the rules, and in order to do that, you may need advice from your ethics official. Learn who your ethics officials are if you don’t already know so you can contact them.

The facts matter, so when asking questions, it helps to provide as much detailed information as possible.

3. Understand your financial holdings and monitor them

Separate and apart from ethics readiness, this is generally good practical advice for your personal finances.

If you are a federal employee, whether or not you are a financial disclosure filer, the financial conflict of interest rules apply to you. You need to know your financial investments as well as those of your spouse and child. Assets such as stock, sector, diversified mutual funds (whether or not reportable on your financial disclosure report), bonds, variable annuities, privately-held business stock, restricted stock, options, and more, including holdings of brokerage accounts, managed accounts, retirement accounts, education accounts and trusts, must be understood and potentially disclosed in your financial disclosure report if you are required to file one.

Whether or not you are required to file a financial disclosure report, if there is any concern of a conflict, seek guidance from your ethics official.

4. Learn the ethics calendar and filing requirements

Your agency ethics officials will be able to provide the schedule of ethics due dates for important continuing requirements, such as financial disclosure filing, outside activities if you have an outside employment form requirement, ethics training and other requirements. Remember, each requirement that applies to you is important to satisfy in a timely manner. Add time and reminders to your calendar so you can stay on top of these requirements. Ethics officials will more than likely thank you for it.

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Christine is Deputy Director, Office of Ethics and Integrity of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. This article was prepared by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the FDA, DHHS or the federal government. Christine also serves as a Community Volunteer Leader for the American Red Cross, Montgomery, Howard, and Frederick County Chapter, and on the advisory committee for her city pool and fitness center. She is inspired to write about endurance, volunteerism, and career management, among other topics. In her “spare” time she is an avid swimmer and runner, and enjoys spending time with her family, friends and pets. Her motto is: “Work hard, play hard.”

This writing was prepared by the author in her personal capacity. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the FDA, DHHS or Federal Government.

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