How (and why) to make ethics your business

By Janice Roberts

Ethics, the twin sibling of ‘client first’, is the formerly ‘soft’ business issue that has fast become the difference between organisations that succeed and those that don’t. Juanita Vorster, in her keynote presentation at the 2019 Glacier IdeasLab in Johannesburg on 21 August 2019, and Francis Marais, head of Glacier Research, unpacked what it means to be ethical, even in a constrained economy.

It’s more relevant than ever

According to Juanita, ethics is arguably more relevant than slick products and sales figures. Companies are forced to be extra attentive to ethics, especially because it impacts their reputation.  Advanced technology has made for an informed society which is able to decide – and judge – and hold companies to account.

It affects every part of your business

“I believe that most people are inherently good, and do not intend to act unethically or run a corrupt business,” says Francis Marais. “But temptation creeps in, financial constraints force people’s hands, and they do what actually goes against their grain.”

Francis posits that we are all faced with ethical judgement calls every day. We need to ask ourselves: ‘How am I faring, personally?’ And it’s not just whether you or your staff are pinching office printer paper. Ethics consciousness needs to be instilled in product or portfolio design, HR practices, marketing and especially where our operations interface with clients.

Francis goes on to suggest that, while the observance of regulatory and compliance frameworks such as Treating Customers Fairly (TCF), implemented to foster ethical behaviour, is expected, ultimately ethical behaviour starts with the self, and also the negation of the self. This ties into Juanita’s point that ethical behaviour is enabled where the needs of the self, the needs of the other and observance of the greater good intersect.

To illustrate his point, in areas such as product design and portfolio construction, the question to ask is: What is our motivation? Are our efforts for profit, or are they truly to help people have a better financial future?

Let’s be frank

Admittedly, these discussions are controversial, says Francis. At the moment, people are uncomfortable to speak openly as public discourse about ethics and corruption is often derailed by finger-pointing, claims of racism and racial slurring. It’s not an environment to speak freely, and this is unhelpful and distracting as we need to grapple with all issues relating to running cleaner, tighter ships.

Juanita and Francis both challenge our ethical thinking with the following questions:

  1. How well do we know our clients?  Do the solutions we design for them serve their needs?
  2. What effect will my behaviour have on others? Thousands of jobs were lost as a result of what happened at KPMG, Steinhoff and Bosasa, and in the case of state-owned enterprises (SOEs), the reputations and well-being of development-critical organisations, have suffered almost irreparable damage.
  3. What am I prepared to speak up about? Not all employees of companies that have come into disrepute, are bad apples.  Many of them felt uncomfortable about what they saw in their organisations, but did they speak out? Get to know the avenues that could be followed to speak up.
  4. What am I prepared to walk away from? If a deal is lucrative, but goes against my ethical grain, would I walk away?
  5. What have I got to lose? Is what I’m about to do, worth losing my job, my reputation, or my life?

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