Responding to rampant corruption: get your own house in order

We are all outraged by ongoing reports of public sector corruption. And, given how long corruption has been a problem, many are questioning whether the latest government committee, the Committee of Ministers appointed by the President to investigate Covid corruption, will achieve meaningful results.

As a positive response, sharing proposals and solutions to address corruption – or articulating them better – is valuable. The political will to act against perpetrators, irrespective of rank, seniority, political connections or political influence, effective accountability processes and actual consequences are all imperative and would make a difference.

Although these actions are not generally within the private sector’s control, it does not mean that nothing can be done. If the current ethical outrage is a reflection of the recognised importance of ethics, there needs to be a clear, proactive answer to the question, ‘what can we do?’.

A critical first response is to move beyond public sector criticism to get the ethics in your own house in order. Here are five practical steps that your organisation can take to improve your ethics.

  • 1. Don’t be party to bribery and corruption

    We all know that it takes two to tango, typically the private sector as corruptor and the public sector as the corruptee, and hence that corruption can be terminated by the private sector. Unfortunately, the rampant levels of corruption show that this has not happened – a failure that cannot only be attributed to tenderpreneurs whose business model is based on corrupt and inflated tenders. Now is the time to say no. But, if corruption does arise, organisations should have a clear internal process that employees can rely on.
  • 2. Formally identify ethics as a primary organisational goal

    Ethics should be positioned at least as a ‘first among equals’ relative to financial, social and environmental goals in order to ensure that ethics is a priority within the organisation and relative to employee and stakeholders. Critical to this is a supporting ethics strategy which provides clarity about how the organisation will realise its ethical goal.
  • 3. Provide regular ethics training and awareness initiatives

    Building and maintaining an ethical culture requires ongoing ethics training and awareness initiatives. This should be provided to all employees, executives and the board and, ideally, also to key external stakeholders such as suppliers to promote ethics within the organisation’s whole value chain.

    The effectiveness of this rests the following factors:
    • Short, more frequent ethics conversations are more effective than a one day workshop.
    • The interventions are customised for the participants, both as regards style/format and content.
    • Crucially, the training needs to be focused on shaping conduct – which is the ultimate determinant of whether a culture is ethical or not – rather than simply telling participants what they should not do, which, in good measure, they already know.
  • 4. Measure and monitor ethics

    An accurate understanding of the organisation’s actual ethical status – including ethical vulnerabilities and ethical strengths – is an essential prerequisite to be able to address ethics. An annual ethics assessment represents one of the easiest ways to manage ethics effectively, while also complying with the SA Companies Act Social and Ethics Committee requirements and the King IV recommendations. The results of a sound assessment should inform the organisation’s Annual Ethics Plan. And the assessment should, of course, align with best practice as regards independence, comprehensiveness, customisation, reliability, representivity and confidentiality.
  • 5. Effective, consistent consequence management

    Accountability and consequences must be non-negotiable features of the organisation’s management of ethics. The absence of either, or the selective imposition of consequences (for example, only to lower level employees), can fuel an ethical slide – as evidenced by the many ethical scandals in our news – that is very difficult to reverse.
The difference that an ethical organisation can achieve may appear to be limited to its employees and stakeholders. But we recognise the C3 principle: company, community and country. While the positive impact of organisational ethics starts with the company, it has the potential to be carried to employees’ communities and, in so doing, creates a space for ethics to grow in our country.

Of course, being seen to be ethical also delivers an unintended benefit: competitive advantage. Consumers choose to deal with organisations that they trust: Be that organisation.

by Cynthia Schoeman
© Ethics Monitoring & Management Services (Pty) Ltd, 2020