3 August 2011

The State Services code of conduct imposes an obligation on everyone working in agencies to do nothing that harms the reputation of their agency. –“We must avoid any activities, work or non-work, that may harm the reputation of our organisation or of the State services”. This means that some things done out of the work setting may breach the code.  This is a murky area.  But it is just as murky in employment law. All employers are concerned about their reputation and regard activities that harm that reputation as punishable misconduct.

The explanation in Understanding the code of conduct: Guidance for State Servants is that … “As a general principle, what we do in our personal lives is of no concern to our organisation unless it interferes with our work performance or reflects badly on the integrity or standing of the State Services. …We must avoid being connected publicly with behaviour that creates a sense of public disquiet, and that, implicitly, diminishes trust in the State Services.  Involvement in some personal activities, including unlawful behaviour or incidents involving a breach of trust, is likely to bring our organisation into disrepute.”

Unlawful behaviour then tips the balance.  But what about lawful activities?  In the last few years there have been incidents involving agency employees engaging in prostitution in their spare time. Media reaction suggests that greater disrepute flows from that lawful activity than convictions for traffic offences and tax evasion.  The news yesterday of a senior Auckland Police officer being convicted of speeding puts a focus on the relationship between offending, the seniority of the offender and the role of the agency.  The general test is that an official  who contravenes legislation enforced by their employing agency, harms the reputation of that agency.  Inland Revenue staff must pay their tax and fisheries officers  must ensure they throw back any undersize catch. And reflecting another incident reported yesterday, commanding officers of naval vessels must be exemplary in their behaviour.   Police officers are particularly “vulnerable”.

The media report about the speeding officer, coincidentally filmed by a television crew in the intercepting patrol car, is that no breach of the Police code of conduct occurred. By implication the seniority of the officer and the conviction won’t harm the reputation of the Police.  Possibly that is what most New Zealanders would think.  But are the surrounding circumstances troubling?  The officer was speeding in his official car.  Though on leave and with a civilian in the car, he is alleged to have made a claim to being on a covert activity, unknown to any others. He sought to be treated differently because he was a Police officer.  The reality is that senior State servants are different from others in the community. Higher standards are required of them. More particularly, the expectation is for integrity. Leaders are required to model behaviour that is fair, impartial, responsible and trustworthy.