Opinion | Workplace Ethics and the Law in the context of the public service space

By Malachy Ugwummadu
A file photo of Malachy Ugwummadu, Esq.


If it is given that in contemporary public management, a countrys growth and development is proportional to and ineluctably linked to the efficiency of its public delivery hub otherwise known as the public service then, of immense importance is the need to prioritize its optimal functionality and capacity.

In other words, how does a properly structured, resourced, stimulated and oriented public service space, as a critical component of a nations social capital through a productive workforce in workplaces facilitate good governance?

Better still, to what extent does a functional workplace ethics enhance public service delivery and trust?

Conversely, how does a declining public trust vis-à-vis a dysfunctional public service arrest public growth and development which will ultimately create poor and bad governance?

These are valid questions the answers to which are not farfetched.

Therefore, a nation set on a clear and exponential public growth agenda CANNOT ignore its public management structure. It is precisely for this reason that underdeveloped, developing economies within fledgling democracies across the globe, particularly in Africa, are constantly advised, admonished and often warned to pay greater attention to building structural institutions as conscious responses to the increasing decline of political capital and gains against the backdrop of established reckless behaviour of the political elites in identified countries.

No doubt, such strong public service structures carefully nurtured and protected could help cushion the devastating impacts of a decadent and dysfunctional political class bereft of operational ideas and insights as we know them presently. This is not to discountenance the settled studies that the health and strength of any public service environment is a measure of the political stability and seriousness of the country.

This presentation focuses on a critical sector of the public service duly recognized as an integral part of a nations workforce and bureaucracy for public service delivery. It examines the guiding principles, management and sustainability factors for enhanced ethical standards in public service.

Contemporaneously, the paper discusses the applicable legal regimes and acknowledges the fact that the quality of public service delivery, public trust and good governance in nations across the globe is largely a function of the operational ethics obtainable in their public service environments. It emphasizes the logic that the height to which a nation aspires to attain can easily be measured by the attention it pays to its public service and the efforts it puts to develop same.

Finally, it concludes that no nation escapes the colossal tragedies of a dysfunctional public service and recommends that it is only by observing the best workplace ethics and standards that a dynamic and functional Public Service can be guaranteed.

The Workplace

There is no ambiguity about the term workplace. It simply means any place of employment or where workers perform assigned tasks, jobs and projects. Indeed, it is anywhere or locations where employees discharge the functions of their offices or positions, period.

However, the law in defining a workplace takes a more work-friendly environment as the ideal description of a workplace and anticipates that any designated workplace whether in the factory or at public establishment must be safe and risk free.

The Blacks Law Dictionary (page 1,638) simply defines workplace as a persons place of employment or work setting but insists by reference to the meaning of a safe work place (page 1,363) as: A place of employment in which all dangers that should reasonably be removed have been removed, a place of employment that is reasonably safe given the nature of the work performed.

Digital or Virtual Workplace/Environment

The global digital technology evolution has fundamentally influenced the entire spectrum of human existence and has expanded the notion of a workplace to include anywhere or location in which an employee carries out his or her responsibilities using digital technology in a collaborative manner that promote innovation and competition towards an improved service delivery.

This remarkable innovation, no doubt, is a reliable enabler for creation of massive database in workplace; shared resource and availability of relevant skills which could promote efficiency and effectiveness in public service.

Workplace Ethics

➢Ethics in workplaces or rather “work ethics” refers to the study of moral values and how they affect conduct. The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy 3 describes ethics as the philosophical study of morality. In this regard, you could safely say that ethics and morality are both pursuing the same purpose and can be used interchangeably.

➢Intrinsically, ethics explores the possibility of resolving questions of human morality. Morality remain fixed on what is wrong or right, good or evil and the motive of the conduct. The duo of Elizabeth A. Oji and Offornze Amuchaezi further argue that ultimately and in all assessments of human and social conduct, motive and traits, we are applying moral standards. According to them A moral norm may be either a rule of conduct or a standard of evaluation. It may be a requirement that anyone in certain circumstances ought to do a certain kind of action or ought to refrain from doing a certain kind of action.

➢The issues of ethics and morality may be important with potentials of impacting workers’ behaviour at workplaces yet, they hardly constitute part of the contracting terms between employers and employees.

➢That may be so, but violation of these standards of morality and ethics attract heavy penalties or even dismissals from work and business places.

➢Most of such ethical malfeasance are misconducts in most workplaces and establishments. For instance, we can find them duly enumerated in Rule 9 030301 which defines ‘Misconduct’ as a specific act of wrong-doing or an improper behaviour which is inimical to the image of the service and which can be investigated and proved. It can also lead to termination and retirement. Misconduct includes [a] Scandalous conducts such as: (i.) Immoral behaviour; (ii.) Unruly behaviour; (iii.) Drunkenness; (iv.) Foul Language; (v). Assault; (vi.) Battery; [b] Refusal to proceed on transfer or to accept posting; (i.) Habitual lateness to work; (ii.) Deliberate delay in treating official document; (iii.) Failure to keep records; (iv.) Unauthorized removal of public records; (v.) Dishonesty; (vi.) Negligence; (vii.) Membership of cults; (viii.) Sleeping on duty; (ix.) Improper dressing while on duty; (x.) Hawking merchandise within office premises; (xi.) Refusal to take/carry out lawful instruction from superior officers; (xii.) Malingering; (xiii). Insubordination; (xiv.) Discourteous behaviour to the public.

➢ Similarly, acts of misconduct are copiously found in codes of practice or conducts depending on the workplace in question but mostly professionally bodies There are other sets of codes for others like the medical and dental practitioners just as there are for accountants and for even journalists etc. They are basically codes of professional standards accepted and adopted by particular professions to guide their collective and individual behaviour below which they could be sanctioned according to the rules.

➢ In public service space however, the codes of conduct for employees specify the procedures to be used in specific ethical situations such as conflicts of interest or the pursuit of dual jobs while in service, including acceptance of gifts etc, and prescribe the procedures by which violation of the codes are identified and available remedies activated and made accessible.

➢ The core Public Service values of: – Impartiality – Legality – Integrity – Transparency – Efficiency – Equity – Responsibility and Justice – are all shared and common standards by which behavioural patterns of public servants in public services are measured and evaluated. They are largely informed by the democratic principles, social norms-political objectives and professional standards and expectations.

➢The public service institutions are encouraged to institutionalize these values and hold public servants responsible for behaving in accordance with those standards. In effect, we are back to the preliminary point that the presupposition and intendment for public sector service flow from a bigger responsibility that lies within the purview of politics and politicians. Indeed, the political class has a responsibility to ensure adequate welfare and comprehensive protection of the citizens

➢ Appropriate conduct in public service can be entrenched through strengthening of properly constituted institutions and bureaucracies like the public service for effective service delivery.

➢By 1998, the Council of the Organization of Economic Community and Development (OECD) developed what has now become the benchmark for measuring the principles of managing ethics in Public Service and made the following profound recommendations:

  1. Clarity of ethical standards for public service
  2. Ethical standards to be reflected in the Legal frameworks of engagement.
  3. Availability of ethical guidance to public servants.
  4. Public servant should be conscious and knowledgeable of their rights and obligations when exposing wrong doing.
  5. Political commitment to ethics should reinforce ethical conduct of public servants.
  6. Transparency, integrity and scrutiny in decision making process. (Tajudeeen V F.I.R.S (2020) 12 NWLR (Pg. 1739 P.459).
  7. Clear guidelines & rules of engagement in public and private sectors
  8. Deliberate promotion and demonstration of ethical conducts by managers of the public service.
  9. Deliberate management policies, procedures and practices designed to stimulate desired ethical conducts.
  10. Public service conditions and efficient management of human resources should promote ethical conducts and behaviours.
  11. Adequate accountability mechanisms in public services.
  12. Appropriate and effective disciplinary procedures and sanctions to deal with misconducts.

The foregoing is by no means exhaustive of the concerted global efforts to advance ethical standards in public service centers. It is even understood that the same Organization has commissioned amongst 14 member countries, the formation of other principles of operational documents for member countries towards reviewing the national ethics frameworks and ethics standards. A few other member countries are focused on structural reform efforts to ensure the effectiveness of their ethics management strategies aimed at wider public service results.

No doubt, the rapidly changing work environments require regular and constant reviews of polices, practices and procedures affecting public service.

Civil and Public Service in Nigeria

➢There is some measure of uncertainty as to who is a civil servant in contradistinction to who a public servant is. By implication, the distinction between civil and public service in that regard is blurred.

➢Some early judicial authorities and judgments in these areas particularly relating to the language used have neither helped matters nor enhanced the understanding of these phrases nor were they sufficiently elegant and explicit to remove the confusion.

➢By and large, the principal organic law in the land, the Constitution, has come in aid to throw more light and insights into the distinction between the two. In describing the Public Service of the Federation or States of the Federation, it provides thus: Section 318 Public Service of the Federation means the service of the Federation in any capacity in respect of the Government of the Federation, and it includes services as (a) Clerk or other staff of the National Assembly or each House of the National Assembly – (b) Members of the entire judicial system of the country (abbreviation mine) – (c) Members or staff of any commission or authority established for the Federation by the Constitution or by an Act of the National Assembly (d) . (e) .. (f) .. 15 (g) Staff of any company or enterprise in which the Government of the Federation or its agency owns controlling shares and interest. h) Members or officers of the armed forces of the Federation or the Nigerian Police Force or other government security agencies established by law;

➢The same language and categorization of public officers in the federation are used for the Public Service in the States. Conversely, the same Constitution under the same Interpretation section defines Civil Service of the Federation to mean: Service of the Federation in a civil capacity as staff of the office of the President, the Vice President, a ministry or department of the Government of the Federation assigned with the responsibility for any business of the Government of the Federation.

➢It is however imperative to note the remarkable difference in the public and civil services of the federation are in the operative phrases used in their definitions including in any capacity in the case of public service and in a civil capacity in the case of civil service.

➢Therefore, a civil servant is a public officer within the employment of the civil service of the federation or of a state government. See the Supreme Court case of AVRE VS. NIPOST.

➢In effect, you are a civil servant because you work in the civil service of the Federation or States. Conversely, you are a public servant because you can work in any public service of
the federation. See another Supreme Court case of AWALA VS. NITEL PLC.

➢Section 18 of the Interpretation Act 13 draws the same conclusion and referred copiously to S. 318(1) of the Constitution indicating that there is unanimity of understanding built around the constitution and decided judicial authorities. Surely, it establishes, without doubt, that a civil servant can only work in the civil service of the state or federation while a public servant can work in both civil and any other service including military, diplomatic, security and services.

Factors Inhibiting Ethics in Workplace

The following have been identified as inhibiting factors to proper ethics standards in workplaces; (i.) Corruption (ii.) Nepotism; (iii.) Tribal, ethnic and clannish factors; (iv.) Faulty application of extant rules; (v.) Dubious application of the Federal character principles (vi.) Inadequate and inappropriate rules.


This presentation looked closely at the operative words used in both civil and public service environments and helped to provide further clarifications and analysis to what they mean. It examined what a workplace mean in labour setting and the dimension that it has assumed today owning to the rising influence of digital technology, virtual job engagements, requirements of social distancing and remote interactions as new variants of work places.

While considering the relationship between the civil and public services, it identified some relevant judicial authorities from appellate courts to make the case that there may be slight differences between civil and public services; yet they are largely bound by similar ethics standards.

Finally, the presentation identified the very important principles, management strategies and the sustaining factors for ethics at work places. In the end, it warned that an entire nation is set on an indefinite, indeterminable journey to nowhere if it undermines the need for a strong public service and concludes that the political elites must show enough commitments to make this possible.

Abridged version of Presentation by Malachy Ugwummadu Esq. Legal Practitioner, Immediate Past President, CDHR at the Strategic Planning For High And Sustainable Performance at a 2 – Day Strategic Planning & Management Retreat at Michael Imoudu National Institute For Labour Studies (Minils) Ilorin, Kwara State.