Ethics are essential in business. As a result of the poor leadership of the past few years, a permissive culture of corruption has been created. We have to counteract this corrosive trend, and save South Africa from the slippery slope of unscrupulous and unsavoury practices.
We have to remind ourselves that ethics in business cannot be compromised. And if we need recent reminders of this, we have only to look at the house of corrupt cards that is tumbling around us – and so many other dubious dealers who have been exposed by a robust press and a vigilant public. It takes decades – or a lifetime – to build up a reputation, but just seconds to lose it. One dodgy decision, and a dishonest associate can destroy your client base overnight. The taint of corruption can tank a business for good.
Corrupt practices have a knock-on effect. Because corruption creep happens in an instant. If you associate with unprincipled partners, your reputation will be tarnished by association. So be careful of who you choose to do business with. And then look to your own internal culture. Within every organization, there’s bound to be a ‘rotten apple’ or two. As a leader, you need to keep a close eye on your organizational culture, and ensure that a code of conduct – which exemplifies and rewards ethical behavior – is firmly in place.
But there will be times when, as a leader, you have to hold yourself to account. Because, ultimately, you are accountable for the actions of all your employees. The buck really does stop with you, and you need to have tremendous courage and a sound moral compass in order to navigate those crisis moments and reputational disasters.
Openness and transparency are a good start. Come clean immediately if you suspect corrupt practices in your organization. Full disclosure is the way forward. This is the hallmark of strong, resolute and ethical leadership. Bring bad practices into the full light of day, and deal with this promptly and openly. And take restorative action as soon as possible. This means not only rooting out wrongdoers, but being seen to do so. Exposing malpractice and enacting immediate punitive measures demonstrate to your organization that there are consequences to corrupt activity. If you fail to act, you lose the moral high ground, you lose loyalty and respect from ethical employees, and you risk your oversight appearing online, in the press and in the public domain. Once it’s out there that you failed to act, there is no real road to recovery. You’ve set yourself – and your business – on that slippery slope.
We have to work from a position of zero tolerance. Petty theft – stealing soft drinks or staples from the office stores, for example – is still theft. It’s impossible to police every single employee or colleague – nor would you want to – but if you turn a blind eye to those smaller, supposedly insignificant misdemeanours, you’re opening the door to a corrupt culture. You have to draw that line in the dust, and let all your staff know that, unless they buy in to a business built on ethical principles, they are not welcome in the organization.
Over and above this internal vigilance, we need whistleblowers to weed out the unworthy. And we can’t leave this to civil society – to remarkable organizations like Corruption Watch, Section 27, amaBhungane, and so many other NGOs who are holding big business and government accountable. And we can’t leave it to our exemplary judges either. Business, too, has to be beyond reproach. And we have to take the lead as corruption busters.
This is where mentorship plays such a meaningful role: we need to lead by example. If you’re a thought leader, an influencer or a captain of industry, you need to hold yourself to the highest standards. You need to make integrity, trust and transparency the differentiators in your business. Let this be what sets you apart from the rest. And filter this value system throughout your organization, morally mentoring the next generation of leaders. Be the good you want to see in the world, and bring back a culture founded on good conscience.
You may ask, can we really bounce back from this culture of corruption that has seeped in so deeply in South Africa? Yes, we can. Firstly, we need to ensure there is substantial social censure for any wrongdoings, no matter how small. Then we need to actively collaborate to alleviate poverty. Poverty breeds desperation – and desperation breeds theft and other unlawful practices. So, we have a responsibility to build a more equitable South Africa, to break the poverty cycle, and deliver economic opportunities for all. We are currently not doing nearly enough.
Corruption, however, nearly always begins at the top, and filters down. So, hold your management team to the highest standards, root out the rot, build best moral practice into your business, and become a role model for all those around you. And if you are feeling uneasy about something, trust your instincts. Always listen to that inner ethical voice.