October 1, 2013 – 5:00PM
Public service editor
Schmooze founder Phillip Jones says disclosing relationships will skirt any dilemmas that arise from networking.Photo: Katherine Griffiths
Envelopes stuffed with cash; covert deals to award lucrative government contracts: these are familiar archetypes of corruption.
But what about rocking up to a workplace cocktail night, hoping to impress the executives?
A Canberra ethicist says career networking is akin to bribery; an immoral attempt to gain an illegitimate advantage over others.
Socialising … or self-interest? Photo: Michele Mossop
The University of NSW’s Ned Dobos, who lectures at the Australian Defence Force Academy, also compares such networkers with legal “earwigs”: lawyers who try to influence a judge outside the courtoom.
In an essay in this month’s Public Sector Informant, Dr Dobos said a briber sought “advantage by conferring benefits upon the relevant decision-makers”.
“He is trying to buy something that should not be bought and sold … The only difference, then, may be that the networker appeals to psychological interests, while the briber appeals to material ones.”
Dr Dobos said there were important differences between socialising and career networking, adding ethical problems only arose when the intent was to gain economic advantage.
Effective networkers tried to make themselves “known to, and liked by, potential employers, selection panellists, etc”.
“If all goes according to plan, these people will take their fondness for the networker into account when making decisions that affect his/her career,” Dr Dobos said.
“That is precisely the point. If those decisions include the awarding of jobs that are the objects of competition, the networker will have successfully garnered non-merit-based favour.”
In Canberra, federal bureaucrats are required by law to make “decisions relating to engagement and promotion that are based on merit”.
Yet many government agencies, including the Public Service Commission, host and promote career-networking events.
Phillip Jones is the director of Schmooze, a group that helps connect businesspeople and professionals.
He eschews the term “networking”, saying most people who attend his events are not “dollar-driven; we’re about building mutually beneficial relationships”.
Mr Jones said people were “hard-wired to try to connect with each other”, but some professionals, especially amid a transient population like Canberra’s, felt isolated.
“That’s where we come in. People have limited time and money to spend. So they want to be in the right room with the right people.
“But what people are looking for is very varied. It might have nothing to do with the dollar; they might simply be looking for market intelligence or to swap ideas about business, or be looking for a mentor.”
He agreed that some networkers might ultimately be to trying to win jobs or contracts, which could present quandaries for public servants.
“It would be idealistic to assume that external relationships don’t affect our decisions, whether consciously or not. The trick is to make them overt.”
Mr Jones said government staff involved in contract or job selections could skirt ethical dilemmas by declaring any relationships.
“Especially in the public service, and even more so in a small place like Canberra, where there’s only two degrees of separation between everyone.
“If you disclose clearly who you know and how, then you’re protecting yourself against claims that you’ve acted inappropriately.”