Corruption and Deviant Behaviour in the Public Sector

Education could be a great help in preventing corruption

Posted by Harriet Stacey in on March 14th, 2016

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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.

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.
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.

Once a corrupt employee has developed a network, there are plenty of people to help engage in corruption or to help conceal it.
Once a corrupt employee has developed a network, there are plenty of people to help engage in corruption or to help conceal it.
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.

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.

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.
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.

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.

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.
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.

 

Harriet Stacey
Harriet Stacey

Owner, WISE Workplace

Harriet Stacey is a founding member and Chief Executive Officer of WISE Workplace, a national Australian firm providing investigative services in relation to workplace misconduct since 2002. She has designed, implemented and managed the workplace investigations processes for leading government agencies, corporations and the not for profit sector, trained thousands of HR and compliance professionals to conduct investigations and has conducted and overseen over a 1000 investigations of fraud, discrimination, bullying and harassment, sexual harassment, child protection and inappropriate use of ICT resources.

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