Responsibility to uphold APS Values and integrity and reputation of the agency extends to the employee’s actions as a customer of the agency.
In two separate cases, employees received overpayments from the agency for which they worked, after providing inaccurate information about their circumstances. The employees made arrangements to repay the overpayment following internal investigations which identified the discrepancies. Both employees were found to have breached:
- Section 13(11) Code of Conduct—the requirement to uphold the APS Values; APS Employment Principles; and the integrity and reputation of the agency and the APS,
for private behaviour as customers of their agency but behaviour that had a connection to their employment.
As well as being required to repay the debt to the Commonwealth, both employees received a reprimand and a percentage reduction in their salary as a sanction.
The case against the employees
The employees had provided inaccurate information about their circumstances, in connection with their payments over a period exceeding two years. The fact of overpayment was acknowledged by both employees and arrangements were made for repayment of the debt. In failing to accurately report their circumstances as required, the employees had not acted ethically and with integrity, and therefore failed to uphold the APS Values.
The employees’ arguments
The employees argued that they had not intended to provide inaccurate information. They also stated that repayment of the overpayment was causing financial hardship and, along with the stress caused by the disciplinary process, they had already been sufficiently sanctioned.
MPC assessment of the cases
The Merit Protection Commissioner noted that the community reasonably expects APS employees, when they are clients of the agencies that employ them, to meet the obligations that members of the public are expected to meet. They expect that APS employees at a minimum meet their obligations as a client to disclose the information necessary for the agency to determine their lawful entitlements. It is the responsibility of the employees as customers of the agency to take all steps necessary to inform and satisfy themselves that the information they were declaring was correct.
In determining the level of the sanction the sanction decision-maker may give consideration to mitigating circumstances as set out in the Australian Public Service Commission’s publication Handling misconduct: a human resource manager’s guide. The Merit Protection Commissioner noted that the sanction of a reduction in salary can be used to reinforce the seriousness with which the employee’s conduct is viewed, and should be determined in light of the high standards expected of employees when interacting with the agency as customers.
The Merit Protection Commissioner considered mitigating circumstances in determining the reasonableness of the sanction imposed by the agency. In one of the cases, the Merit Protection Commissioner considered that a reduction in salary at the lower end of the proposed range of the agency was appropriate given that the conduct was considered uncharacteristic, and the likelihood of recurrence was low.
In the other case a larger reduction in salary was considered fair and reasonable as a significant financial penalty was necessary to demonstrate to the employee the seriousness of the behaviour, and to discourage its repetition. The Merit Protection Commissioner also took into account the youth of the employee, but determined that this and other mitigating factors were not sufficient to warrant a recommendation that the sanction be reduced.
Conclusion—Failure by an employee to act ethically as a customer of the agency for which they also work has the potential to damage the reputation of the agency and is considered serious.
Employees who are customers of the agency they work for have the same obligations as customers as other members of the public. However, they also have responsibilities under the Code of Conduct, which they must take seriously.