Sideways is preferred to dismissal

The normal range of career moves is up, sideways or out.

Up should reflect success and follow on the employee making a positive contribution. Sideways can be a positive move when it is used to broaden an employee’s experience. However, sideways mostly indicates that the employee is not contributing and that the organisation’s leadership lacks the courage to take decisive action. Out should follow a serious failure to deliver or a breach of ethics. This is often avoided in the private sector, citing labour legislation as an excuse when, in fact, our legislation provides for dismissals when warranted.

In the public sector, dismissal also does not seem to be an option. Not only are sideways moves favoured, but they also appear to reward those who should instead be held accountable for their actions.

The current focus is on police commissioner Bheki Cele. Will being fired take the form of a comfortable sideways move as SA’s ambassador to Canada? If this occurs, it would not be for the first time that a disgraced or inefficient political leader has been posted abroad.

The former minister of women, youth, children and people with disabilities, Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya, was fired and then posted as SA’s ambassador to Egypt. The former labour minister, Membathisi Mdladlana , was posted to Burundi. Vusi Mavimbela, the former director-general in the Presidency, is now SA’s ambassador to Zimbabwe. Makhenkesi Stofile, the former sports minister, is SA’s ambassador to Germany, and Geoff Doidge , who was public service and administration minister, has been sent to Sri Lanka.

The message this sends is bad enough: that who you know outweighs what you do or don’t do, be that misconduct or nondelivery.

However, the effect of this message is far worse, namely the consequent erosion of accountability. This is a very dangerous outcome. When leaders are not seen to be answerable for their actions, it does not merely undermine a value that is essential for sound political and organisational health, it oils a slippery slope towards autocrats and arbitrary action.

Letter to the editor, published in Business Day
19 October 2011