It is widely accepted that values can be different for different people. The consequent challenge is that these differences can also lead to differences between employees’ personal values and the values of the organisation. Acting against this may appear to be curtailed by the fact that everyone enjoys the right to their personal values, a right supported by the Bill of Rights in the South Africa Constitution, which states that “everyone has the right to freedom of conscience, religion, thought, belief and opinion”.

This personal right does not, however, eliminate the organisation’s right to expect employees to conform to its values within the context of the workplace and within the scope of the employer-employee relationship, nor does it prevent the organisation from taking action against those who contravene its values.

A more positive approach would be to focus on what can be done to realise the ideal goal of aligned personal and organisational values.

One solution to this potential disparity in values is that organisations recruit for the right values. While certain pre-employment integrity assessments deliver some value, mostly these tests do not realise the intended purpose because the potential candidate would easily know the right or most ethical answer. If a recruiter offered the following four choices of when bribery would be acceptable, what would be the correct answer?

  1. When the value of the business deal exceeds R1 million
  2. When it has been approved by your line manager
  3. Never
  4. When it has occurred previously in the company

Clearly 3 is the correct response

Even when applicants are asked to consider more complex scenarios, they are still likely to give the answer that they think the prospective employer wants to hear and that would secure them the job, rather than necessarily revealing their personal values.

Another approach to align values is to use training programmes to clarify and reinforce the company’s values and what behaviours are and are not acceptable in the workplace. For this to be effective, a trap that must be avoided is the inclusion of material that focuses on employees’ personal values and ethics. Have you paid your traffic fines? Have you inflated an insurance claim after a burglary or loss? If you were given extra change would you admit it?

While these situations lend themselves to discussions on ethics (or the lack of ethics), they are not suitable topics for two reasons: firstly because they infringe on the employee’s right to exercise their values as they choose in their private capacity, and secondly because that intrusion is likely to create a barrier to the employee’s further learning or engagement with the training material. The barrier would probably be expressed as “what I do in my private life is my business” or “you’re not my mother/father/… to tell me what to do in my private life”. The counter argument that employee’s personal ethics are carried into the workplace is perfectly valid - but it still does not warrant this intrusion into their private conduct.

A helpful test as to when a company is entitled to intervene is to ask whether you could formally act against the employee for such behavior. If, for example, you found out that one of your staff had stolen his/her neighbour’s cellphone, would you be entitled to start a disciplinary process at work? As much as the behavior is unquestionably unethical, it does not fall within the scope of the employer-employee relationship and hence, as the person’s boss, you would not be able to institute any disciplinary action - although you could and should report criminal activity to the appropriate authorities.

There is, however, an exception to the general position that employees are free to exercise their personal values outside the workplace.

For leaders and executives this does not apply to the same extent. Their behaviour is generally so closely linked to the company and its reputation that inappropriate behaviour in their personal capacity would risk negatively impacting the company. While this exclusion could be viewed as eroding their right to privacy, in reality it is simply the cost of occupying a high profile position in an organisation. Their seniority and position as role models almost inevitably leads to them being held to a higher standard of conduct. The consequent challenge that leaders need to be aware of and to manage is the fact that those standards are not limited to office hours. Responsible leadership thus warrants that they conduct themselves ethically at all times.

Examples of high profile misdemeanours illustrate this well. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a French economist, lawyer and politician who served as France’s Minister of Finance, was appointed the head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 2007. But when he was charged with sexually assaulting a hotel maid in New York, did he have an option to stay on as Managing Director of the IMF? Could the IMF afford to be linked to such behaviour? The accusation was made on 14 May 2011 and he resigned on 18 May 2011.

A local public sector example is the South African Police Service, which was significantly affected by two successive National Police Commissioners being removed from office because of unethical conduct. Jackie Selebi was appointed the National Police Commissioner in 2000 and was the president of Interpol. But in August 2010 he was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment (although he was released on medical parole just 229 days into his sentence). His successor, Bheki Cele, took on the role of National Police Commissioner in 2009. However, he was suspended from the position in October 2011 and fired in June 2012 based on the findings of a board of inquiry into his involvement in two police lease deals for buildings in Pretoria and Durban.

The influence of divergent personal ethics on the organisation can thus be damaging. But the benefits of alignment are as noteworthy in the reverse. Values, therefore, necessitate attention and building greater alignment between personal and company values should be treated as an important goal relative to all employees. There are many initiatives that would promote this, but the most effective route is to ensure that values constitute a real facet of the organisation and that leaders at all levels in the organisation actively, visibly and consistently live the values.

© Cynthia Schoeman, Ethics Monitoring & Management Services (Pty) Ltd, 2014