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Government Executives Must Be Held to High Workplace Ethics Standards

Respect for Others Creates a Civil Workplace

Last week I was interviewed by Naomi Lin, a Washington Examiner reporter, about the ethics surrounding inappropriate behavior and comments in the workplace of government executives in the Biden administration. First, let me say that these kinds of things go on in all administrations, and the Trump administration had its share.

The rest of this blog comes from the reporters posting online and my comments.

President Biden promised during the 2020 campaign that he would lead a moral, transparent White House, seeking to distinguish himself from former President Donald Trump. Yet, some of his and his aides' decisions have fallen short of that standard, including this week regarding bullying allegations against top scientist Eric Lander, according to ethics expert Steven Mintz.

"Biden missed an opportunity to use Lander’s inappropriate workplace behavior as a 'teachable moment,'" Mintz told the Washington Examiner, creating a mismatch between his words and deeds.

"Why should the American people trust what Biden says in other areas?" Mintz asked, specifically referring to Biden's overtures to Russia over Ukraine. "Will he follow through?"

Biden's statement accepting Lander's resignation late Monday failed to mention the two-month internal investigation into accusations that he had created a toxic work environment at the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy. The internal investigation, which concluded last month, found credible evidence supporting the claims but did not end in Lander's dismissal.

Instead, Biden focused on Lander's achievements as chief scientist concerning the pandemic, climate change, and the president's cancer moonshot passion project. And on Tuesday, White House press secretary Jen Psaki repeated that Lander had stepped down on his own terms, with the president not advised of the investigation while it was ongoing.

Lander's exit was precipitated by a contentious press briefing Monday afternoon. Four different reporters needled Psaki on why Lander, who has apologized, was still in his Cabinet-level post after Biden swore on Inauguration Day to dismiss any subordinate who disrespected or demeaned a colleague "on the spot — no ifs, ands, or buts."

In response, Psaki touted the Executive Office of the President's "safe and respectful workplace policy," which was implemented last spring.

"Following the conclusion of the thorough investigation into these actions, senior White House officials conveyed directly to Dr. Lander that his behavior was inappropriate and the corrective actions were needed, which the White House will monitor for compliance moving forward," she said.

"Our objective and the president's objective is to prevent this behavior from ever happening again," she added.

Yet Biden has broken his day-one vow before. Psaki faced similar questions last winter when onetime White House spokesman TJ Ducklo was not fired after complaints that he had threatened to "destroy" a female reporter and made derogatory remarks about her sex life following her request for comment related to a personal story about him. Ducklo was originally suspended for a week without pay and ordered to no longer engage with the journalist. Download

"When we announced that TJ Ducklo had resigned his position, something we all agreed was the right path forward, I made clear that every day we're going to try to meet the standard set out by the president in treating others with dignity and respect, with civility, and with a value for others through our words and our actions," she said. "He's no longer employed here, and I think that speaks for itself."

The Ducklo incident was Biden's first test in shifting the White House's tone and culture after Trump, according to Mintz.

"Biden’s failure to react immediately and live up to his promises is short-sighted and illustrates a lack of integrity in government," he said.

As I mentioned above, the posting clearly criticizes Biden for his initial response to the two incidents. I agree with that point. Biden needs to take definitive action when violations first occur to send a clear message that behavior such as that discussed in this blog will not happen again.

Just as CEOs should establish an ethical tone at the top to create an ethical culture in their organizations, Presidents need to do the same to establish an ethical culture in the government and with those doing business with the government.

Blog posted by Dr. Steven Mintz, The Ethics Sage, on February 15, 2022. You can sign up for his newsletter and learn more about his activities at: https://www.stevenmintzethics.com/. Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/StevenMintzEthics and on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/ethicssage.