Choosing the path of ethical behaviour


Striving towards increased ethical behaviour warrants an in-depth understanding of the drivers of ethical and unethical conduct. Amongst these different factors the prominence of the impact of leaders provides a good starting point because leaders are widely recognised as the most influential factor shaping the behaviour of others towards being more or less ethical.

Good leadership implies that the leader acts to set a good example by entrenching the organisation’s values and code of conduct. It reflects what the King III Report on Corporate Governance in South Africa refers to as “responsible leaders” who “do business ethically rather than merely being satisfied with legal or regulatory compliance”, and who are characterised by the ethical values of responsibility, accountability, fairness and transparency.

There is clearly immense value in ethical leadership. The winners of the Nobel Peace Prize offer high-profile examples of leaders who have contributed enormously to the betterment of society: Desmond Tutu (1984), the 14th Dalai Lama (1989), Aung San Suu Kyi (1991) and Nelson Mandela (1993). There are, however, many more examples of unethical leadership in both the private and public sectors. The challenge therefore is that there are often too few ethical leaders.

However, rather than abandoning the pursuit of ethics because of this lack, we need to recognise that ethical behaviour is not solely dependent on leadership: We need to look beyond leaders for another significant source of ethical behaviour.

Individuals – whether in their capacity as employees or citizens - represent an important source of ethics. In recognition of their power to shape ethical behaviour, three basic features of ethics are noteworthy.

The first is that ethics centres on a choice between good and right versus bad and wrong. While leadership is a strong influencing factor, it is but one factor. Individuals’ choices are also shaped by other factors: by their personal values, by the norms of the groups to which they belong (such as their family or community), by the organisation’s culture, by applicable laws and by the organisation’s and other institution’s rules and regulations.

These choices are subject to the second feature of ethics, namely that people almost always know the difference between right and wrong, especially within the context of the workplace. Given this knowledge, unethical conduct can be viewed as a “knowing – doing” gap – as a gap between what is known to be wrong and what is nonetheless done. Therefore, even if leaders exhibit unethical behaviour, for example condoning corruption related to tenders, it does not make it right. The classification of that conduct is still wrong.

A third feature of ethics that is relevant is the fact that the ethical status of an organisation is made up of the behaviour of all its members. While the behaviour of high-profile leaders is more impactful than that of the individual, it does not eclipse that of the whole organisation. Leader can be, and have been, removed for misconduct: The resignation last year by the Barclays Chairman, CEO and COO is a case in point.

Thus, apart from situations of coercion or extreme autocratic leadership, the individual employee and the individual citizen retains the choice to copy, to ignore or to avoid replicating the leader’s example in their own behaviour. The power of this original choice to follow a path of ethical or unethical conduct should not be underestimated: it should instead be recognised and encouraged in the right direction.

By Cynthia Schoeman

Published in The Star & Pretoria News Workplace, 24 April 2013