Is ethics your responsibility?

Whilst the goal of achieving ethical behaviour in the workplace is shared by organisations across different sectors, industries and countries, the realisationof this goal is not always easy or straightforward.

Of the factors which shape behaviour, leaders are widely recognized as one of the most influential. As role models, they effectively set the ethical standards of the organisation by the values they demonstrate, by what they say and do, and by what they don’t say and do.Industry bodies can similarly be viewed in a leadership role relative to their member organisations, ideally to drive and encourage ethical conduct (as opposed to inactivity which can be seen as ignoring or condoning misconduct).

Good leaders and bad leaders

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

The winners of the Nobel Peace Prize offer high-profile examples of good leaders: Desmond Tutu (1984), the 14th Dalai Lama (1989), Aung San SuuKyi (1991) and Nelson Mandela (1993).

There are, however, many more examples of unethical leadership. Local political figures who have demonstrated unethical conduct include BhekiCele and Jackie Selebi, the former National Police Commissioners, SiceloShiceka, the previous Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, and Gwen Mahlangu-Nkabinde, the former Public Works Minister.

In business there are more examples, such as the scandal around the Quoin Rock auction in December 2011 by former Auction Alliance chief executive Rael Levitt and the former estate agent, Wendy Machanik, who is to be sentenced on two counts of contravening the Estate Agency Affairs Act and 90 counts of theft, totalling R27 million.

Ethics is not solely dependent on ethical leadership

There is no doubt that there is immense value in ethical leadership. The challenge is that there are often too few ethical leaders. One is therefore compelled to also look to the individual as another significant source of ethical behaviour, and in doing so, to promote the recognition that the pursuit of ethical behaviour cannot be solely dependent on ethical leadership.

In recognition of the power of the individual to shape ethical behaviour, two basic features of ethics are noteworthy: the first is that ethics centres on the individual’s choice between good and bad, and right and wrong. While leadership is a strong influencing factor on behaviour, it is but one factor. The individual’s choice is equally shaped by personal values, by the norms of a group or of an organisation’s culture and by applicable laws, rules and regulations. The individual’s ability to choose also undermines the leader’s ability to enforce ethical behavior.

This choice is also subject to the second feature of ethics, namely that, in the context of the workplace, people almost always know the difference between right and wrong. Even if a companycondones misconduct, for example corruption related to tenders, it does not affect the classification of the behaviour as wrong.

Thus, apart from situations of coercion or autocratic leadership, the individual employee is generally free to choose whether to follow a path of ethical or unethical conduct, and the power of this original choice should not be underestimated.

In pursuit of more ethical leaders?

Addressing the apparent shortage of ethical leadership by focusing on initiatives to develop more ethical leaders is a sound approach - except that it can be undermined by restrictive assumptions.

One particularly pertinent assumption from the perspective of ethics was articulated by Peter Senge. He acknowledged that “when things are going poorly, we blame the situationon incompetent leaders [and]when things become desperate we can easily find ourselves waiting for a great leader to rescue us.”

This outward focus of looking for someone else to be the ethical leader to raise the level of behaviour in the organisation misses the bigger question, namely, what are we, individually and collectively, able to contribute?Taking personal responsibility for behaving ethically can make a difference in your sphere of influence.

It also ignores the fact that the ethical status of the organisation is made up of the behaviour of all the individuals: employees, managers and leaders. Each individual’s every act – ethical or unethical, positive or negative – either builds or erodes the organisation’s ethical tipping point - that crucial point at which, ideally, the majority of behaviour tips the balance towards ethical behaviour,and in so doing, it becomes the norm.

Towards being more ethical

The answer to how to be more ethical is simply to make ethical choices. Coupled to this, there are further steps which can help to promote improved ethics:

  • Understand and live your values
    The crucial moral values in the workplace are honesty, integrity, fairness, respect, responsibility and accountability. Living these values entails a personal commitment to the values - not merely superficial compliance - which is evident in all your decisions and actions.
  • Contribute to an ethical organisational culture
    You can contribute to an ethical culture by demonstrating visible support for the way things should be done in the workplace. This makes no allowance for the person who does not make the link between “what I do and what’s being seen” and “what I say”.
  • Comply with and support applicable legislation, rules and regulations
    This takes into account that the law is only the minimum standard. It means that you should aspire to do more than the bare minimum, and it excludes a “tick box” approach to compliance.
  • Follow the golden rule to do to others as you would like them to do to you
    The philosophy of reversibility is a well-recognized approach, and a principle at the centre of most religions. It does not include the variation of doing unto others before they have a chance to do to you!

In conclusion, the goal of achieving ethical behavior starts by taking responsibility for one’s own ethical conduct. To paraphrase Mahatma Gandhi’s view (that “we need to be the change we wish to see in the world”) we each need to be the ethical leader we want and would wish to follow.

By Cythia Schoeman
Published in Professional Accountant, Quarter 4 2012