Corruption and Deviant Behaviour in the Public Sector

Jill McMahon - Thursday, March 03, 2016
Corruption and Deviant Behaviour in the Public Sector

Corruption is a significant issue in Australia’s public sector. It can exist in many forms with varying degrees of severity. But even though its existence is well documented, it remains difficult to address because witnesses can be unwilling to report their experiences. 

There can be many reasons for this, including social pressures, the use of legitimate processes to hide corrupt behaviour, and using co-workers to assist corrupt activities and prevent detection. 

How can it be defined?

We often think of corruption as being the most serious frauds or abuses of power, yet it can include what we would normally consider to be reasonably minor behaviours which violate the trust placed in employees. Examples of this might include fraudulently altering timesheets, or claiming sick leave while undertaking a second job during the time off.

Deviant behaviour can be defined as violations against group norms. This behaviour can be contrary to an organisation’s policies and rules. The two can battle each other as normal behaviour within the group can be seen as being more important than organisational rules and procedures. Although minor, this behaviour can spiral into corruption if left unaddressed. 

While corruption has the potential to and does indeed exist in both public and private sectors, government organisations seem uniquely challenged by corruption issues. This may be because of their large size and the geographical spread of employees, with managers sometimes working in different locations to teams, leaving teams with limited oversight and accountability. 

Social identity and the spiral into corruption

Social groups within a workplace can band together to promote or hide corruption.

Just like the schoolyard, people in workplaces can find themselves categorised or indeed categorise themselves into the ‘in’ or ‘out’ group. Some who are new to a workplace may want to associate with the ‘in’ crowd no matter what. If the group is engaged in corrupt activities or deviant behaviour, the new worker may be drawn in and pressured to participate. New employees can be socialised into corruption within the group or bullied to maintain silence.

Management may have knowledge of the strong sub-culture and choose not to intervene for a number of potential reasons. It may be that the group is performing well and meeting KPI targets, it may be that management is being bullied by staff not to intervene, or it may be that the status quo is being maintained through the use of corrupt alliance and relationships.

The ‘in’ group is all about informal power. A worker may not hold a senior role, but they have such strong personal power over colleagues that they end up being the leader within the group. Through use of this power, manipulation and persuasion, they may create and maintain these norms of corrupt behaviours.

Read more on: Social Identity and the Spiral into Corruption

Corrupting legitimate processes

When corruption is embedded into everyday routines and operations, it can be difficult to detect as behaviours become normalised. Often, these legitimate processes rely upon alliances within the workplace. For example, organisational processes might require a double sign-off on invoices for payment, yet two employees could work together to create and approve false invoices and transfer funds into their own accounts.

Speaking out against corruption can result in changes to a person’s employment conditions, such as redundancy, transferring a worker, cutting hours or changing shifts – all of which may seem legitimate until the timing is considered.

Use of alliances and networks

Employees can develop strong alliances and networks both within their close-knit group and more broadly across the organisation. These alliances can be used for corrupt purposes through an environment of secrecy, agreed rules and clique-like closeness. As employees get transferred to different areas and promoted, or even promote members of their clique, this network can grow both in size and the effectiveness of its corrupt activities.  

Once a corrupt employee has developed a network, there are plenty of people to help engage in corruption or to help conceal it. Sometimes, these people are manipulated into assisting through legitimate processes, and may not even realise that they are aiding corrupt activities.

Read more on: Use of Alliances and Networks

Protection from detection

People working together have tremendous power to be corrupt and resist detection. The strength of the ‘in’ group relies upon no one speaking out about the group’s activities. In cases where someone has spoken out, or alleged corrupt activities are suspected by management, corrupt group members can protect each other by providing false evidence that supports members or covers their tracks. This inhibits investigators from proving their suspicions and uncovering the corruption. 

Read more on: Banding Together to Avoid Detection

Silence and censorship

Silence and censorship are closely linked to social pressures. Once an employee group is engaging in corrupt behaviour, they can cover up their activities by insisting on the silence of others. 

Newcomers to the group can succumb to peer group pressure for a number of reasons, including:

  • Fear of being ostracised or bullied.
  • Wanting to be accepted into the group.
  • Being socialised into the normative behaviours of corruption.

Read more on: How Silence and Censorship can Enable Workplace Corruption

Can anything be done to prevent corruption?

Minimal reporting of alleged corruption makes it difficult to detect, with the wall of silence and supportive behaviours within the ‘in’ group enabling it to continue unopposed.

However, there are a number of precautions that employers can take to limit the impact of corruption and deviant behaviour:

  • Have a good understanding of what constitutes corruption.
  • Ensure complaint management systems are robust.
  • Ensure that there are various levels of accountability so that more than one person or group of people is responsible for important tasks. 
  • Avoid having just one person deciding on a procurement supplier. 
  • Physically locate the management team at the same site as the employees it oversees, or conduct frequent random visits. 

Corruption doesn’t just happen. It is made possible through enabling conditions, and then there must be motivators and benefits. It is not always a corrupt individual acting in isolation either.

Training can be effective

Another tool to limit corrupt activity is training. Wise Workplace offers the Certificate IV in Government Fraud Control, which is recognised by federal government agencies, and has been so successful in cost savings that some state and local governments now require public sector investigators to hold this qualification. 

The Certificate IV is a national qualification, aimed at investigators who wish to work in government, and government employees who wish to be promoted. The course focuses on:

  • Identifying fraud and corruption.
  • Conducting risk assessments.
  • Conducting investigations. 

Employee corruption and deviant behaviour is a huge problem in the public sector, compounded by the difficulty in identifying and proving it. There are many employees who observe corrupt behaviours but don’t report them because they are too scared to get involved. 

It’s difficult to know how best to deal with the problem, but it is clear that education, including an understanding of the enabling conditions and the motivators to look for, plays an important role. 

Employees need to be educated about corrupt behaviours, and if more staff can be engaged in higher-level training, the frequency of corruption may start to decrease. 

If you’re interested in implementing education and training around corruption, contact WISE Workplace about the Certificate IV in Government and Fraud Control.

Anonymous commented on 17-Jun-2016 09:51 AM
"There may be some who perceive that corruption only exists in policing environments or in large corporations. It appears from various reports that corruption can exist across any public or private sector organisation.

At the same time, deviant behaviour may be associated with various criminal acts such as paedophilia and other sex offences.

There have over the years been a number of Commissions of Inquiries into various policing organisations and whilst there have been some pockets of corrupt acts, some disucssion has occurred regarding corruption and deviance. It also seems that there is some current research being conducted to identify the links between bullying and corruption. In the past there have been presentations and discussions regarding the links between bullying, corruption and organised crime."
Anonymous commented on 17-Jun-2016 09:53 AM
"For example, Connor: 2002 indicates that 'police work by its very nature involves the slippery slope (the potential for gradual deterioration of socio-moral inhibitions and perceived sense of permissibility for deviant conduct)'.

Connor also indicates 'that police deviance is a much broader term than corruption. It includes all activities which are inconsistent with norms, values, or ethics (from a societal standpoint or even from the police standpoint).'

Connor provides four definitions to be considered. These are:

• Deviance - behaviour inconsistent with norms, values, or ethics
• Corruption - forbidden acts involving misuse of office for gain
• Misconduct - wrongdoing violations of departmental procedures
• Favouritism - unfair "breaks' to friends or relatives (nepotism)

In terms of workplace bullying, all these definitions outlined by Connor come into play at various stages. Victims of workplace bullying may have raised issues alleging non compliance or unlawful activities that if proven, would result in action being taken against another person or persons.

Whilst the issue of police violence and brutality has been identified in various Commissions of Inquiry (Fitzgerald, Rampart, President's Commission 1967) Connor 2000 indicates that brutality 'has been defined as excessive force, name calling, sarcasm, ridicule, and disrespect'. Connor refers to Kania and Mackey's (1977) widely regarded definition that indicates, "brutality is excessive violence, to an extreme degree, which does not support a legitimate police function".

Some workplace bullying behaviours contain elements that could be perceived as violent or even brutal, and certainly in some cases, even a breach of an organisational Code of Conduct. Societal changes have seen many changes in relation to communication practices, and whilst individuals may have ‘temporary flashes’ or ‘outbursts’ when obscenities or profanities are used, it is important to remember the ideology regarding the misuse of such words.

Anonymous commented on 17-Jun-2016 09:55 AM
"Connor 2000 discussed police and police profanity and indicated that 'there are many reasons why a police officer would use obscene and profane language.' Connor acknowledges that 'effective use of verbal communication is one of the skills expected in police work', and whilst there is 'specific condemnation of the use of certain words that are "patently offensive", there is no such 'mechanism for determining what's offensive with interpersonal communication'.

Connor indicates a typology exists with words having 'religious connotations, indicated excretory functions or connected with sexual functions'. The use of words associated with such classifications or typology by police officers is 'purposive and not a loss of control or catharsis' and is done to:

• gain the attention of citizens who may be less than cooperative;
• discredit somebody or something, like an alibi defense;
• establish a dominant-submissive relationship;
• identify with an in-group, the offender or police subculture; and
• to label or degrade an out-group.

Connor indicates that the 'last is of the most concern, since in may reflect the transition of prejudice to discrimination, especially if racial slurs or epitaphs are involved'.

A website generated by Monash University ( Berger and Berger (1972) cited Merton (1968) who defined deviance as:

“conduct that violates the rules of any given society or group. Every society has within it the seeds of deviance in that the very social structure itself exerts a definite pressure on certain person to engage in non-conformist rather than conformist behavior”

Given the nature of workplace bullying, the relationship of work and interpersonal communication is important when considering ethical dilemmas. Unlawful discrimination including sexual harassment involves acts and language that relate to religion, race or sexual functions.

In responding to allegations of corruption in the Los Angeles Police Department, the Rampart Independent Review Panel identified a range of behaviours and activities that were consistent with the typologies identified by Connor. The Panel identified that police officers in a particular location were prepared to '…sacrifice civil liberties…' '…imprison suspects likely to have committed unknown or unprovable crimes…' and that these were '…systematic abuses of authority…’

It is possible that some of examples exist across the broader public sector and not just in policing. It is therefore important that managers and workers at all levels understand not only what is meant by corruption and deviant behaviour, but what they actually look like in their workplace.
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