Imagine two employees facing a similar ethical dilemma. Employee A works for a private, for-profit company and Employee B works for the government. Will they approach the same dilemma differently based on their work sector? One conclusion might be that sector is immaterial; people make decisions not on the basis of where they work but on the basis of the content of the dilemma itself. A second conclusion might be that sector is a material consideration. Because of the public interest and public trust inherent in public sector work, public service workers may sense a more complicated set of values in conflict (Clerkin, Christensen and Woo, 2017) governing their ethical calculus. Prior researchers have shown, for example, that employees with high public service motivation behave more ethically (Wright, Hassan and Park, 2016; Christensen and Wright, 2018). 

March, 16 2020   |   You Yeong Oh, Robert K. Christensen & Eva M. Witesman

An exploratory study

In June 2019, Professors Aaron Miller, Eva M. Witesman, Robert K. Christensen and Brad Agle, all from Brigham Young University, presented an exploratory study at the Public Management Research Conference in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, entitled Are ethical dilemmas in public service unique? A study in experimental decision-making. Our goal was to see if people process dilemmas differently depending on whether the dilemma is situated in the public sector or the private sector. We selected a dilemma for which we presumed the public vs. private distinction would have little impact—a scenario about the payment of contract employees. 

We did not find that sector mattered in any way except one: respondents used more words when responding to the dilemma contextualized in the public sector. How did we arrive at this conclusion? We created a survey-based experiment. We distributed the survey to undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in a private religious university in the United States. The subjects opted into the study through a computerized research subject management system. Students received extra credit in their courses for participation in the study, and participants self-selected this study over, or in addition to, other posted studies offering extra credit.  

The survey yielded 133 usable responses, with roughly one third of the pool being randomly assigned to a public or private sector condition respectively. The final third was assigned to a nonprofit condition, but these responses did not change the public vs. private sector findings reported here. The average respondent age was 22 years, 26 percent of respondents were married, and 37 percent were female. Most respondents (about 72 percent) reported working at least part time, and the average respondent had completed some college, considered themselves to be more religious and more well-off than their peers (4.7 and 4.9 on 7-point scales respectively) and somewhat conservative (3 on a 7-point scale). Racial minorities represented 14 percent of the sample.

Each respondent was asked to read an email from a fictitious old friend, who faces a dilemma at work and who is seeking the respondent’s guidance on how to act. The dilemma was adapted from an actual dilemma reported in an earlier focus group. The dilemma probes whether the friend should risk their job by paying a subcontractor a correct but higher amount for work performed even though the subcontractor inadvertently signed off on a lower amount for the work. The friend’s boss is putting pressure on the friend to pay the lower amount reasoning that it is the subcontractor’s fault for not reading the contract carefully. The dilemmas were identical except for the sector where they occurred (public or private).  

The email concludes with the friend asking for the respondent’s advice. “Would an ethical person risk their job to take responsibility here and advocate paying the subcontractor the higher amount, even if it meant possibly losing their job?” 

The subject is then asked to respond via email. After the response, the subject is asked to list and weigh up all the considerations at stake. Our findings are based on linear regression using sector—public vs. private—as the key independent variable, and number of considerations identified and email word count as some dependent variables. 



Through our experimental survey, we identified two potentially important results. First, in general, our results show that sector did not greatly influence whether respondents used a more complex calculus for this dilemma based on the public versus private setting. For example, there were no substantial differences in number of issues identified among respondents assigned to each setting. 

Respondents’ advice differed significantly, however, in length (word count) by sector. Respondents giving advice to friends in the business sector wrote, on average, 31 fewer words than those in the public sector.  


Why this might matter

While some have raised the notion that public servants should be held to a higher ethical standard because there are broader or more interests at stake (Rohr, 1998), beyond using more words to respond to dilemmas in the public sector context, our respondents did not identify more issues in the public scenario than in the private one. However, because respondents wrote longer advice to their friends in the public sector, there may be important cognitive processes that warrant further attention in the form of future studies. For example, Stevenson, Lytle, Baumholser and McCracken (2017) explain that using fewer words might correspond with heightened levels of self-monitoring or social anxiety. If this is true in our setting, we might understand our findings to mean that respondents feel less anxiety or less need to self-monitor when the advice is to be used in the public sector. They may feel a closer sense of belonging or heightened knowledge about these more public settings. Word counts may also positively correlate with deliberation (Riboni and Ruge-Murcia, 2018) or intensity of participation (Clark, Bordwell and Avery, 2015). Our word length findings raise the opportunity to further study how citizens process ethical dilemmas in the public sector versus ethical dilemmas in the private sector. In this study, we selected a dilemma that we expected to have similar ethical issues regardless of sector. In future studies, we are also interested in how people might reason differently about dilemmas in which the public vs. private context might have a stronger impact on the decision-making process.

You Yeong Oh is a research assistant in the Public Service Lab at BYU. Robert K. Christensen is Professor and George Romney Research Fellow at GW Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics, Marriott School of Management, Brigham Young University. Eva M. Witesman is Associate Professor and Stewart L. Grow Research Fellow in the GW Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics, Marriott School of Management, Brigham Young University.   



Christensen, R. K., & Wright, B. E. (2018). Public service motivation and ethical behavior: Evidence from three experiments. Journal of Behavioral Public Administration, 1(1)

Clark, C. H., Bordwell, D. T., & Avery, P. G. (2015). Gender and public issues deliberations in named and anonymous online environments. Journal of Public Deliberation, 11(2), 2.

Clerkin, Richard, Robert K. Christensen, Harin Woo.  (2017). A Quasi-experimental Design Testing Public Administration’s Separation of Powers Theory: Values, Motives and Sector. Public Performance and Management Review, 40(3): 581-600.

Riboni, A., & Ruge-Murcia, F. (2018). Deliberation in Committees: Theory and Evidence from the FOMC (No. 01-2018).

Stevenson, M. C., Lytle, B. L., Baumholser, B. J., & McCracken, E. W. (2017). Racially diverse juries promote self-monitoring efforts during jury deliberation. Translational Issues in Psychological Science3(2), 187.

Wright, B. E., Christensen, R. K., & Pandey, S. K. (2013). Measuring public service motivation: Exploring the equivalence of existing global measures. International Public Management Journal, 16(2), 197-223.

Wright, B. E., Hassan, S., & Park, J. (2016). Does a public service ethic encourage ethical behaviour? Public service motivation, ethical leadership and the willingness to report ethical problems. Public Administration, 94(3), 647-663. 

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