Ethical Scenario Commentary - Contradicting your Chain of Command

The Maple Leaf
September 2016

The majority of commenters thought Albert was wrong, even if they sympathized with him.

“Being of the lower ranks, I completely understand the frustration when you have a viable suggestion to offer [which is ignored],” one reader observed.

A number of commenters suggested Albert seek help from another (internal) source—though there were no specific suggestions other than a superior in his own chain of command, or a chaplain.

Albert believed his organization was making a mistake, and that he was ethically justified to try to fix this mistake by publicly embarrassing the organization into rethinking its position. His motive, we assume, was well-intentioned, but his ignorance of the basic professional obligations of his position was culpable.

Unless this was a life-or-death issue, a criminal cover-up, or other particularly nefarious institutional failure, Albert’s fundamental obligation was to provide discreet advice, not to lobby the public against the institution of which he is a part. This is what was meant when Albert was required to sign the Oath of Office as a condition of his employment.

Expressed in terms of the principles: Albert thought he was serving Canada before self, and that this took precedence over obeying and supporting lawful authority. But he was not serving Canada before self, because if professional servants of the state choose to undermine the governance process when they disagree with decisions, then they render the institution incapable of serving the state in the way it has been designed. In this case, Albert undermined the system of governance and democratic accountability by short-circuiting the elected government’s ability to do its job with the proper support from its bureaucracy. Albert’s leak can only be justified in extreme circumstances; for example, if he had solid evidence of serious illegality or imminent danger to life.

This ‘extreme circumstance’ provision is acknowledged in the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act of April 2007, and the parallel military provisions under the Canadian Armed Forces Disclosure Process of April 2013.

Albert could have arrived at a better understanding of how these conflicting interests intersect by discussing his issue either with the Internal Disclosure Office (IDO) with ADM(Review Services) or within the National Defence Ombudsman—two examples, among others, of independent institutional recourse avenues for such concerns. The Internal Disclosure Program within the IDO has been legislated in such a way that allegations or concerns about serious wrongs can be raised and assessed in confidence and away from the public spotlight; it thereby brings to bear the notion of necessary oversight of the institution while following the institution’s need to remain credible in the eyes of the public.

It should also be noted that if Albert felt this issue was important enough, he had the option, as a citizen, of respecting his professional obligations by resigning from the institution in order to protest its policy. This has been done on occasion by individuals at senior levels of the Canadian public service. By voluntarily resigning, he would have demonstrated his understanding of the gravity of his criticism and accepted that it was incompatible with his professional role. Instead, he chose to try to maintain his position while acting in protest. He wanted to make his point, but was unwilling to accept the consequences. An analogous approach of integrity in the military setting would be opting to discharge oneself rather than fighting in a war one does not believe in, which is a permissible course of action for Canadian service members if done according to the protocol.

Conflict of Interest: 1-855-447-1112

Ombudsman: 1-888-828-3626

Internal Disclosure Office: 613-992-0356 (civilian or military issues)

Office of the Public Sector Integrity Commissioner of Canada: 1-866-941-6400 or 613-941-6535 (civilian issues only)

Thank you to those who responded to this dilemma. Suggestions for future scenarios are always welcome.

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