Saturday, July 27, 2013

Accentuate the Negative

There's not an organization out there, public or private, that doesn't want its employees to do the right thing. To that end, they enshrine those behaviors as a "Code of Conduct" or "Core Values" or "Guiding Principles." Good thoughts all, until you recall this particular set: "Respect. Communication. Integrity. Excellence." Not a bad enumeration of aspirations, until you realize that the company that so wanted to embody those ideals was Enron.

Still, most companies spotlight these behaviors more in the execution than in the breech. But at least one organization isn't so gun shy. And that's an extremely apt metaphor, since the body in question is the Department of Defense. Yes, be a model employee, and you might get tapped for a Distinguished Civilian Service Award, or perhaps a Secretary's Award for Excellence. But be a bad boy or girl, and you might get recognized as well, just in a different forum. More specifically, you might merit a write up in the "Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure."

Published by the Office of the General Counsel, this compendium of all things smarmy is designed to provide real life examples of the consequences when people don't stick to the rules. As it says in the introduction, "Some cases are humorous, some sad, but all are real." It is thoughtfully arranged for the reader by area of transgression, starting with "Abuse of Position" and ending with "Travel Violations." In between, there are stories of misuse of resources, credit card abuse and attendance violations. In short, all the things that make for just another day working for the US Government.

At the low end, you have simple bribery: "An applicant for U.S. citizenship slid $200 in an unmarked envelope across to an Adjudication Officer during his interview, hoping for a favorable outcome. He got a year's probation instead." Or an unreported gift: "As a gesture of thanks, a retailer gave an Army soldier a briefcase after the soldier, using his Government credit card, had purchased office supplies from the retailer. After an investigation, the soldier returned the briefcase and was counseled." Or not really working: "A Government employee was reported by his co-workers for sleeping on the job. When confronted, he admitted that he may have dozed off a time or two, but never actually slept at work." But never let it be said that the DoD doesn't have a heart: his three day suspension was reduced after he revealed that drowsiness was a potential side-effect of his prescribed medication.

Of course, these kinds of faux pas can happen at any company. But this is the DoD, so the ethical lapses can be much more creative. Under the heading "Taking the Blackhawk Out for Lunch," a chopper crew set down their helicopter behind a restaurant and grabbed a meal. Since they had filed the stop in their flight plan, they were technically in the clear. Still, they got "verbal counseling" as their actions gave the appearance of impropriety. Not so light a punishment for a Navy commander in Italy. Under an entry "Sorry, Skipper, But Those Really Aren't Perks," it describes how he appropriated a ferry to take his friends to the island of Ischia for a dinner party. He was relieved of his command and returned stateside.

Not surprisingly though, most of the stuff is simply garden variety bonehead. There's the Public Affairs officer who awarded the contract for a training video to a production company run by himself and his wife. There's the FBI agent who was responsible for recommending which brand of pepper spray to buy, and took $57,500 in kickbacks. And there's the sub commander who had an affair, got tired of it, and decided to end it by sending a fictitious email that he had been killed at sea. When the mistress showed up at his house to pay her respects, he really was underwater.

Years ago a friend, upon seeing a sign at the gate of a factory saying "321 Days Since Our Last Work Time Injury," mused that a better way to drive home the point would be a series of film shorts called "Lost Time Injury Theater." The aforementioned encyclopedia isn't much different. As it says in the introduction, it is intended to "sensitize Federal employees to the reach and impact of Federal ethics statutes and regulations. " If only that sub commander had read it first: he might still be afloat in more ways than one.


Marc Wollin of Bedford is glad his tax dollars are being used for something colorful. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, The Scarsdale Inquirer and online at, as well as via Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

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