Ethics Awareness for Municipal Employees

Is your municipality’s ethics training and awareness program reactive, proactive, or a mix of both? All sincerely-delivered training and awareness programs will be effective, although taking more than one approach throughout the year may deliver the best results.

A small city in New Mexico recently announced it would be reinstating ethics training for city employees in response to discovered improprieties. Pulling staff together for refresher training on ethics and compliance in response to an incident is reactive, but can also be effective on several fronts.

When leaders address ethics and compliance issues in response to an incident, they show they take ethics and compliance policies seriously. Ideally they will use the training as an opportunity to remind their employees how the relevant federal, state and local policies apply to them and what services, such as ethics hotlines, are available; they will also enable discussion to help employees understand where the gray areas and the “slippery slopes” might begin.

However, if the only time municipalities provide employees with ethics and compliance training and awareness opportunities is in response to an incident, they are missing opportunities to develop an ingrained ethics culture.

A slightly more proactive approach is to offer ethics training to all new employees throughout the year, as needed, and to annually distribute to all employees information about the ethics policy, ethics hotline, and other related services. An even more proactive approach incorporates training and awareness activities throughout the year.

For example, the City of Jacksonville has an Ethics Coordination Council which issued a citywide ethics plan and report in 2013. It also has an Office of Ethics, Compliance, and Oversight that operates the city’s whistleblower hotline and provides training for all city employees on the values behind the rules and regulations, not just on the laws themselves. This training is supported by each department’s ethics officer.

Various related departments report slightly different approaches to training. For example, the Jacksonville community-owned utility company (JEA)  provides ethics training as part of new employee orientations, and annual 30-minute online refresher training for all employee. They report that the training includes ethics scenarios, knowledge checks, acknowledgement of training, and affirmation that employees will follow the JEA Business Ethics Guidelines and Code of Conduct. (City of Jacksonville, 2013).

For a number of years the King County, Washington Board of Ethics engaged county employees with an annual ethics quiz and survey. It was billed as “short, fun, and confidential”; employees who completed the survey were eligible to win a prize from a random drawing.  The quiz contained several important elements: it was offered annually (employees came to anticipate it), it was short and anonymous (employees could feel free to respond), it contained scenarios based on actual situations encountered by county employees (who could therefore relate to the content), and it promoted the ethics hotline (employees had one more reminder about the confidential hotline.) For an example, see

Although the ethics quiz has apparently been retired, the King County Board of Ethics continues to provide an ethics component for new employee orientation sessions and offers tailored education and training for all county departments, on demand.

Perhaps the best approach is a mix of all of the above. A program that incorporates timely orientation for new employees, annually reminds all employees about the ethics policies and services, and adds a little fun into the mix once in a while, will help build and sustain an ethical culture. A program that also has the agility and flexibility to offer a targeted training response to an ethical lapse will reinforce the desired culture in a positive way.

Ethical Advocate helps state and local agencies take their ethics and compliance programs to the highest level of excellence. Contact us for more information.


City of Jacksonville. 2013. Citywide Ethics Report.

King County (Washington). 2010. “Annual Ethics Quiz.”