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An ethics class? Taught by a lawyer? Please, just kill me now ...

When your supervisor announces, "You have to go to a mandatory one-hour ethics training class being taught by the command lawyer in the conference room," your first thought generally is not "Whoopee!" Instead, it probably includes some four-letter invective that is not "golf."


Well, think how the attorney feels. I mean, we'd rather be walking around uttering unintelligible phrases like in pari delicto and malice aforethought, ruining people's lives, or simply frightening the bejeebers out of folks. Teach government ethics? Most of us would rather gargle with glass than subject ourselves and our clients to another death-by-PowerPoint ethics class.

The problem here is one of balance: Ethics rules affect all federal government personnel--therefore, you need to know about them. Learning them, however, can be confusing, boring, and at best, a forgettable experience. In addition, even lawyers have to look up some of the rules since they are so voluminous (and confusing).

Get Out of the Box!

So how about a different approach? Instead of being forced into that once-a-year, one-hour torture called the ethics class or getting that four-page list of rules in December reminding you that you can't eat the cookies that the contractor brings to the office--how about receiving something like the following in your e-mail:

Subj: OMG! The Boss Invited Me to His or Her House!

So you're sitting there in your cubicle minding your own business when the dreaded e-mail arrives: "Office Drop-In at My Mansion," signed, "The Boss." Oh please, not another year of trekking to her palatial estate, having the valet park your '89 Plymouth Reliant, schlepping up the stone steps to "Chez Boss-Lady" and knocking on the twin steel doors with the matching gargoyle doorknockers. ("Why do all SESers have to live like this?" you ask.) The butler answers the door, escorts you to the "parlor" (or as we call it at my house, the ... wait a minute ... I don't have a parlor), hands you a coat check number, and points you toward the "formal dining room."

You stand there holding the $13.59 bottle of finest Shenandoah Valley Cabernet/Merlot/V-8 juice blend wine that you brought for the host and wondering only if she likes red or white. You bought the unique blend even though you remember hearing once that you couldn't spend more than ten lousy bucks on your boss for a gift of any sort, but you just didn't feel right bringing the usual box of Gallo chablis that you drink at home that runs about eight-fifty.

Then you notice that the buffet doesn't have the usual cheese cubes, onion dip, and frozen Sam's Club[R] meatballs-from-a-bag, but rather is an elaborate lobster dinner with crab soup, rosemary potatoes, arugula salad, and cherries flambee for dessert. Surely, ol' Sam's did not prepare this. Surely, this is not less than 10 simoleons per person? You are frozen in the sculpture gallery (the entrance to the dining room) as your head spins. Did I spend too much on the wine? Can I accept the lobster meal? Can the boss give me the lobster meal? Do I have to pay for the valet parking? Did I leave the iron on at home?

Just at that moment, you are seated at the 62-person dining room table--right next to that dastardly lawyer who works in your command (cheap suit, orange shirt, and all ...). You remember mumbling, "I didn't want to come here tonight anyway ...," as you slip into unconsciousness and slide under the table. Your last thought: "Nice tablecloth."

Fear not! All is well! The boss, as usual, is in no trouble at all. An exception to the ten-buck rule is that personal hospitality offered in one's home--meal or other traditional serving--is acceptable and does not have to be kept under any monetary limit. Remember, the boss can give a gift of any value to his subordinates a/k/a, you. But even if your commanding officer or the Secretary of Defense, the Pope, or former Governor Blagojevich (who are all the "supreme bosses" I can think of) is sitting at the table, the personal hospitality exception saves the boss's backside. And you--with your savory vintage safely in hand ready to present to Mr. Boss (hey, every boss has a spouse of some sort, right?)--are also off the hook. Courtesy gifts appropriate to the occasion in return for personal hospitality at the supervisor's home are also an exception. So if you are a true wine connoisseur (I didn't spell-check that word because it should never be used in a government training document), you even can bring an expensive bottle of wine if that is the traditional gift that you bring to your host. There is no ten-dollar limit on these gifts of hospitality.

However, as I always say, be smart.

So, as the fog in your head clears, you remove the cold compress covering your eyes and discover that the command lawyer is giving you first aid (pre-law, pre-med, what's the difference?). You feel confident in the fact that all gifts are acceptable, dive into the goat cheese and sopressata appetizer and wonder aloud whether the butler counts all the silverware after this yearly festivity.

What You Need to Know

Think of what the instructor (namely, me) is trying to get across and what you as a subordinate really need to know. Do you need to know that section 2635.304(a)(1) of the Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch (5 CFR, part 2635) allows an exception to the section 2635.302 prohibition on giving gifts to an official superior if the aggregate market value of the gift (other than cash) is less than ten dollars or that section 2635.304(a)(4) is an exception to section 2635.302 for items given in connection with the receipt of personal hospitality if of a type and value customarily given on such occasions?

Or, as I like to say: "Huh?"

Of course not! What you need to know is that when your boss invites you over to her house for dinner, she can give you dinner, you can eat it, and you can bring a bottle of wine as a hospitality gift as all normal human beings do in such social occasions. A rote recitation of the published rules would tell you that, but would you really pay attention? Would you remember the rule for more than 30 seconds after leaving the training room? Doubtful! Heck, even I had to look it up.

This Isn't Your Father's Ethics Class

Is comedy or silliness the only way to teach and learn ethics? Of course not, but it sure makes it easier. Think why you decided to read this article in the first place. Was it because of the title? Oh sure, you say, you always read the ethics articles because they're important to your role as a good government employee or military service member. Yeah, right. The "hook" got your attention, but that goes only so far. Interest has to be maintained.

For me, a good general ethics training class, e-mail, hand-out, or lecture should try to accomplish only three things:

* Have the attendees remember that there are actually ethics rules that apply to them as government personnel.

* Make no more than three points (and preferably one if it's by e-mail or letter), and use simple, applicable examples to illustrate.

* Have attendees remember you; that is, they know whom to call if they have a question and/or an issue.

I cheated my way through my college basic psychology course, but I do remember that human beings learn better if they actually are interested in learning the subject matter. When was the last time you stood in the middle of cubicle-land and proclaimed, "I can't wait for the ethics class to start!"? We all want to know what will get us in trouble (so we can either avoid it or find a way around it), but we hate the dull learning part. So find some way to make it interesting. I focus on the three preceding rules and keep it light.

Wood's Rules

So, for Rule 1: No one other than an ethics expert can possibly know every rule and nuance thereof, so accept that fact. Use the general guidelines and straightforward lines just to get employees thinking overall of ethical behavior. For example, many folks chuckle when I tell them in class that Uncle Sam expects you to put in a full day's effort for a full day's pay. But a catch line like that can tell a great story: If you're not working, you're doing something wrong. So get off eBay[R] and get to work!

Rule 2: You can't teach much in an hour, so pick something common--and make it memorable. If I'm teaching about acceptance of gifts, I start out with something simple: "Remember, only your mother really loves you and expects nothing in return for her gift. Everyone else wants something from you." If you think that doesn't get people talking, try it sometime. It's a good general thought about gifts--without going through chapter and verse on the rules on giving and accepting gifts--and folks remember it. I can't count the number of times that people in one of my classes have walked up to me in the hallway and said, "Hey, lawyer, my mother still loves me." Well, maybe I'm paraphrasing.

As for examples, use real situations that have happened to you or someone else. Change the names, make it seem unbelievable, and comment on how stupid a real person would be to do something like that. That makes it even better when you explain that the underlying situation actually occurred right there in your command. Again, it makes people remember and gives a real feel to the example. Better yet, if you've ever stumbled into an ethics problem yourself (and who hasn't?), that makes the example even more memorable.


Rule 3: One warning: As my father used to say to me, "If you ain't funny, don't try to be, And son, you ain't all that funny. ..." Be that as it may, it's a good warning. If other people don't think you're funny, be careful using comedy just to be remembered. Don't necessarily abandon it; just find some good, honest brokers who will tell you whether your approach is good or not and who may help you tailor your approach (and always remember that the focus of your comedy is always yourself--not a member of the class!).

Use other techniques to avoid that ultimate teaching disaster: boredom. Use pictures or stories you download from the internet or from magazines, newspapers, etc. That way, you don't have to be entertaining; the extraneous material will do that for you. One of the best instructors I ever saw was horrendously boring. Luckily he knew it, so he constructed his entire presentation using movie clips as examples of ethical dilemmas and let the class do most of the talking. They remembered the class and the instructor because the video stream was so well constructed and interesting.

I once conducted an entire class using slides with nothing other than pictures of cats doing silly things, and people still bring it up when they see me. It's like modern advertising; you don't even have to mention or show the product to get people to remember the message. Just get them to remember that there is a message.

Lead, and They Will Follow

As a lawyer compatriot of mine is fond of saying, "I take my work seriously, but I don't take myself seriously." That's a good lesson for many of us. The rules are important (just read The Washington Post on a regular basis), but learning them does not have to be odious. You may be wondering why this article focuses more on teaching ethics instead of learning it. But does it really? Most of you either are or will be supervisors. The primary ethical guidance in every command resides not in the command lawyers, but in the immediate supervisors. You are the primary instructors for your subordinates' ethical behavior.

So, every once in while, remind them that only their mother loves them. ...



Bryan H. Wood is the Counsel for the Office of Naval Research, the Department of the Navy's center for science and technology programs. Mr. Wood is the senior legal advisor to the Chief of Naval Research on a wide variety of legal issues relating to intellectual property, patents, trademarks, data rights, grants, procurement, the environment, personnel law, and statutory issues facing the Navy and Marine Corps. He is a member of the bars of the State of Connecticut, the United States Court of Federal Claims, and the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.
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Author:Wood, Bryan H.
Publication:Armed Forces Comptroller
Date:Mar 22, 2009
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