A little boy steals a pencil at school. His teacher phones his father who promises to deal with the matter. ‘Why did you take the pencil?’ he asks. ‘You know that there are hundreds of pencils at daddy’s work. Just ask and I’ll bring you as many as you need’
Reports of misconduct in corporate governance and accounting practices, regulatory evasions and misrepresentations have become all too common on the South African and global landscape. Our Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture − known as the Zondo Commission – is, at its core, an investigation of our ethics.
The ruinous impact of dishonest tactics that are deployed for short-term gain is long lasting. And, this is true for matters of massive consequence and public interest as much as it is for the decision to bring a pencil home from the office and steal from an employer.
Why are we outraged to hear about corruption and crime but willing to bend the rules to break the speed limit, drive drunk, buy fake goods, under-declare tax and so on. Ethics start with the individual − with me, with you.
Professor Dan Ariely, a leading behavioural economics expert based at Duke University, refers to the ‘What the Hell’ effect. This form of groupthink, in which we believe we are getting away with ‘small cheats’, encourages more cheating. Ariely adds: ‘Sadly, it is this kind of small-scale mass cheating, not the high-profile cases, that is most corrosive to society.’
In the human body, the autonomic nervous system regulates a variety of life-sustaining processes. These include our heartbeat, blood flow, breathing and digestion, that take place without any conscious effort on our part. If we want ethics to really define us, we need to strive to make them autonomic – automatic – so that there is no question of how we will respond to consequences, big and small.
Society expects business to be built from an ethical substrate. Consumers and stakeholders want to support those enterprises with a commitment to integrity, to advancing and addressing human rights, diversity and inclusion, supporting transparency and the rule of law. Yet corporate and state wrongdoing is a continuing reality. Unethical behaviour damages reputations, harms employee and citizen morale and fuels society’s distrust in business and leadership.
American politician and congressman Rodney Davis puts it well: ‘If you’re guided by a spirit of transparency, it forces you to operate with a spirit of ethics. Success comes from simplifying complex issues. Address problems head-on, be truthful and transparent. If you open yourself up to scrutiny, it forces you to a higher standard.’
Being ethical is as simple as this – choose to do what is right, at all times.
Would your business make the list?
Ethisphere.com annually lists the World’s Most Ethical Companies. In 2019, American multinational 3M featured six years running. CEO Mike Roman commented: ‘Great and enduring companies are driven by purpose and built on a foundation of trust – trust we’ve earned from our customers, shareholders, employees, communities, and partners. We owe it to all who count on us to do business the right way, at all times and under all circumstances.’ Interestingly, a 2018 video series featured 3M leaders sharing ethical dilemmas and how they overcame them. Always guided by honesty and integrity, they used the videos to encourage staff to value ethics above all.