Manitoba's auditor general says the provincial government has to pay closer attention to what its employees are doing, after a survey found that one-third of the civil service was aware of fraudulent or unethical behaviour in the workplace.

Auditor General Carol Bellringer identified cases of ethical misconduct and fraudulent activity within the civil service in her annual report, released earlier this week.

"We believe a proactive approach is required to instill a strong ethics program throughout the civil service," the report states in part.

"Especially in times of fiscal restraint, ensuring that the corporate values and ethics are embedded within the workplace culture helps to foster and maintain an ethical environment throughout government."

Bellringer's office surveyed nearly 5,000 of Manitoba's 14,000 government employees about ethics and fraud within the civil service.

About 32 per cent of survey respondents said they were "personally aware of fraudulent activity/ethical misconduct in their workplace within the past year," the report said.

Paul Therrien, vice-president of labour relations with Legacy Bowes Group in Winnipeg, said similar results can be found in any workplace, both in the private and public sectors.

"In any type of organization you're going to have certain individuals that will bend the rules — not necessarily maliciously, but just by doing little actions here and there," he said.

Major examples cited

The audit found that for example, a then-employee of the Office of the Fire Commissioner bought two trucks from the office for $700.

The purchase price was well below Manitoba Public Insurance's combined estimated market value of $15,000, according to the report.

In Thompson, Man., a financial clerk in the Northern Airports office used government credit cards to spend more than $39,000 on personal items such as clothing, groceries and gift cards.

The audit found 90 cases in which the clerk made personal purchases during working hours.

The clerk and the manager of the Northern Airports office have since resigned, according to the report.

Not everyone reported misconduct

Among the respondents who said they knew of fraudulent or unethical conduct in the workplace, about 53 per cent reported that activity to management, while 25 per cent did not.

About 29 per cent of those who did report the misconduct said they "felt that they experienced some form of retaliation as a result," the report said.

The auditor general's report noted "limited use" by government employees of the province's whistleblower law, known formally as the The Public Interest Disclosure (Whistleblower Protection) Act.

"Less than a third of respondents felt confident that they would be protected from reprisals if they reported an issue under the Act," the report states in part.

"I think when the rubber hits the pavement, in practical terms, employees are still very reluctant to come forward probably for fear of their jobs, fear of retaliation in the workplace," said Therrien.

Progressive Conservative Leader Brian Pallister called on the NDP government to take action in light of the auditor general's findings.

"That kind of culture just can't be allowed to continue to exist in any organization, certainly our civil service," he told reporters on Friday.

Premier Greg Selinger said it's important that civil servants understand that whistleblower legislation is there to protect them.

He also said the government has to work with civil servants to "make sure they're informed of what those guidelines are, and what their obligations are to operate in the public interest."

Bellringer made a number of recommendations in her audit report, including one that calls for the establishment of a code of conduct for all civil servants.