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Faculty of Education and Arts - Occasional speaker

Sunday, 17 January 2010, 6.00pm

Dr Ruth Shean


Congratulations to you all. Congratulations to friends and family members present. Other people’s qualifications can be extremely hard work, and especially so for you key supporters who have assisted in so many ways: you have probably forgiven grumpy moods and forgotten household tasks. Thank you for your forbearance.

But my main message tonight is of course to the graduands themselves. Well done. It’s a great feeling, isn’t it? How many times during your course did you think to yourself – is it worth the pain? Will I ever finish this? Well yes – it was and you did.

But what you may not realise is that tonight you have received two things: a new qualification, and a new element to the way that others regard you – your reputation.  It is about that latter element – reputation – that I wish to address you tonight.

Reputation itself is nothing new to you. No doubt you had a reputation of sorts when you were very young. Your family may have missed no opportunity to remind you that you were a bad sleeper, or a messy eater. As you grew, your reputation might have included being good at running, or excellent at maths. During your undergraduate days, you may have formed a reputation of a different sort, but now that you are a graduate, thankfully you can leave this behind.

When you graduate, you not only gain an award which attests to your skills and achievements. You also gain an obligation to bring honour to those who share that award, and the institution that awarded it. Reputation is no longer a singular expectation, but a mantle of obligation that you carry on behalf of many others.

The first time this struck home to me was when I had been teaching for a few years. Each Friday after a demanding week, my colleagues and I used to go to the local pub. We would have a drink or two, or three, and then when the night was still young, we’d pick up pizzas for dinner. Waiting for them to cook took patience, and we used to entertain ourselves with waiting games. The best one was the shopping trolley derby, which included a pusher and a pushee. It was a lot of fun.

One Monday morning, one of my students said to me “Miss Shean, was that you I saw in a shopping trolley last Friday night?” I put on my best teacher’s voice and said “Lilly, do you really think that I would be sitting in a shopping trolley?” and she said “That’s what Mum said when I told her”.

This was my first instance of understanding that reputation is not a joke, but a serious obligation.   While there may be nothing especially bad about being in a shopping trolley, I’m not sure that it enhanced my credibility as a teacher. And I began to realise that even though I might have done something innocent in a moment of high spirits, it wasn’t going to do us any good if this was the way we were seen by our students.

I also began to understand that a single incident of infamy has the capacity to damage an otherwise impeccable career. Reputation is extremely fragile. It is like trust: it arrives on foot but departs on horseback. What you build up over many years can be dashed suddenly through indiscretion. If I was talking to you a year ago, the name Tiger Woods would have signified something different to that which it might signify today.  What a tragedy that such a remarkable golfing career should conclude for the time being in such a salacious fashion.

You don’t need the fame of Tiger Woods to have reputation work against you.

Until recently, in my role as Commissioner for Public Sector Standards, I was involved in the recruitment of public sector CEOs.  I would advertise CEO roles, and using the time honoured approach of written application, interview and referee checks, I would recommend to the Premier people suitable for appointment. In some two and a half years, I was involved in around 40 of these processes.

I had been prepared for fierce competition in these positions, but I hadn’t been prepared for the lengths that some candidates would go to to represent their case – or, as sometimes happened, misrepresent their case.

During my own period as Commissioner we had at least three such cases. In each case, applicants had reached the final stage of the process. When we did our due diligence, we found out that some of the qualifications they claimed were fabrications. One explanation was that the applicants’ partner had made the typographical errors.  Moral: never get your partner to type your CV.  One declared that the section explaining that the courses of study were incomplete had been accidentally omitted. One candidate listed five qualifications. When we checked, we found he had only completed one. The rest had been little more than good intentions.

The irony of all of these cases is that there was never a requirement for qualifications.  Had the applicants not claimed the qualifications, they may well have been appointed to the positions.  As it was, not only did this scratch them from the race, they have probably ruled themselves out of a WA public sector CEO role forever.  Their reputations are shattered facades.  

Another one of my duties as Commissioner was to oversee standards in government recruitment across public sector agencies.

One such matter which was widely reported at the time related to a former senior police officer and his employment at another government agency.  

In 2008, the Corruption and Crime Commission released a report on an inquiry into a wrongful murder conviction. This led to the Commissioner of Police commencing a disciplinary investigation against the police officer in question.

In February last year, the police officer was appointed to a senior role at another government agency. When he left the Police Service to take the new role, the investigation was terminated. As the disciplinary process did not run its full course, it was not possible for the officer’s reputation to be cleared. The questions surrounding his conduct during the murder case remained unresolved.

OPSSC examined the matter, and reported to Parliament on significant shortfalls with the recruitment process.

What is interesting about this case is the infectious nature of reputational damage. Had the Police disciplinary enquiry been completed, the officer’s reputational issues would have been resolved. As it was, he resigned before this had finished and the reputational issues surrounding him spread to the next environment.  These have now impacted on senior staff at his new agency. What started out as a single matter of reputation became an issue of judgement that clouded a number of other people.

In all of these cases, it was not qualifications that were lacking, but a rarer element: good judgment and sound common sense. The trouble with common sense is that it isn’t all that common. And where common sense disappears, so too do you find that good reputation is scarce.

So, tonight as you sit with the evidence of your work on you knee – and you can proudly add this to any job application and know that in doing so you draw on not just your own reputation but that of Edith Cowan University – I suggest that you attach to it a mental note.  And it goes something like this.

“This qualification has taken me a lot of hard work.  I can now go ahead and do something silly which is likely to undo it all in a single action.  Or, from now on, I can think carefully, and multiply my hard work, simply through sound judgement and common sense.

“And in doing so, I will bring honour on myself, my family, and the university community with whom I have studied.”

Good luck, and stay away from shopping trolleys.

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