“Injustice is unsustainable,” Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng said at the recent launch of the GIBS Ethics Barometer in Johannesburg. Business should be considered a citizen of South Africa, with rights and responsibilities: “In a nation as challenged as ours, you need government, civil society and the corporate sector working together.”
The Ethics Barometer, compiled by the GIBS Ethics and Governance Think Tank in partnership with Business Leadership South Africa (BLSA), draws on a Harvard Business School tool, adapted to South Africa’s issues and challenges. Fifteen leading companies from diverse sectors were surveyed to establish this comprehensive benchmark of South African business ethics.
The Chief Justice insisted that ethical leadership is a business imperative, and South Africa can’t afford to “overindulge in theories.”
Ethical leaders are humble, honest and straight forward, while unethical leaders are arrogant, self-serving and manipulative, he explained.
Ethical leaders serve others and are servant leaders; they show courage to do what is right and are not easily swayed: Ethical leaders are concerned with the greater good of the entity and the nation, he added. “However inconvenient it may be to pursue ethical leadership if the critical mass of people stand to benefit rather than be harmed, then let the ridicule and embarrassment come.”
Mogoeng said he didn’t believe harsh punishments would act as a deterrent against unethical behaviour, but that people must understand it is in their interest to do the right thing. “We must expose unethical behaviour, have strong institutions in place and name and shame all that are not doing the right thing.”
It is the duty of South Africa’s leaders to find peaceful and enduring solutions for our problems, he said. “As leaders of integrity, it is our responsibility to deal with problems of racism and discrimination. We need to work aggressively towards crushing this polarising nonsense of racism and unite our people in a genuine peace in this country. We must work to heal the divisions of the past, as our Constitution says.”
GIBS Ethics Barometer
Nonkululeko Nyembezi, chair of the JSE and BLSA, called ethics “the defining business issue of our time” and said leaders should strive to create corporations who will do the right thing, even when they are not under scrutiny.
Director of the GIBS Ethics and Governance Think Tank Rabbi Gideon Pogrund explained the Barometer is an attempt to shift ethics from the periphery to the centre of corporate decision making.
The GIBS Ethics Barometer aims to be locally relevant while being aligned with a global framework. It uses quantitative data as well as in-depth qualitative analysis by collating 7000 comments from respondents to gauge the state of ethics in their organisations.
Pogrund said the tool “facilitates an opportunity for self-reflection for leaders. The Barometer’s ambition is to create a longitudinal survey that can assess companies’ progress over time and create a national benchmark and establish clear targets to which corporates can aspire. Our aspiration is that the measurement of ethical performance becomes usual practice amongst South African companies.”
Preliminary Findings - Culture and Transformation
Initial findings from the Ethics Barometer’s inaugural survey discovered that the majority of respondents thought it important that their organisations behaved ethically, and that ethical values are widely shared across groupings. Pogrund pointed out this is particularly important in a society as polarised as South Africa.
However, only 30% of respondents who said they had witnessed ethical misconduct, including discrimination, bending of the rules to reach targets and tolerance of bullying and intimidation, said they would report these breaches, either out of fear of victimisation or because they didn’t believe their company would take any action. Both reasons demonstrate a lack of trust, Pogrund said.
Whistleblowers are often vilified, and company leadership and boards should strive to make it easier for employees to report wrongdoing, Nyembezi said. “We have to move the needle so as to create the kind of workplace where people’s values are not at odds with those of their management teams. It is true that boards and leadership live in an echo chamber and they have to be intentional about creating safe spaces for people to speak up, she added.
Professor Nicola Kleyn, dean of GIBS agreed, adding: “There is very little freedom of expression within corporates. We have to think meaningfully about how we build culture and how we build the ability to hear the truth of the other. There is a significant difference between a cult and a culture. In a cult, leaders talk, and employees listen. We don’t want that.”
Busisiwe Mavuso, CEO of BLSA said there “is still a lot business can do to contribute to the task of social cohesion.”
When asked whether it is the responsibility of business to correct South Africa’s historical wrongs through transformation, Mavuso said for corporate South Africa to represent the demographics of the country, business will “have to reflect and shift their approach from transformation as a compliance issues to transformation as an ethical imperative.
“Racial tension has escalated and there is a lot that we need to do as business to encourage social cohesion. We are failing to see beyond our noses.”
“As business we should challenge ourselves to do more,” she continued. “The trust deficit between employees and leaders is an indictment on us as leaders. If we can’t be trusted by our employees, are we truly leaders?”