Tougher corruption consequences can fix our ethics dilemma

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Finance Indaba panellists suggest ways to promote integrity in a climate where corruption often goes unchecked.

The more we accept unethical behaviour over time, the more of a norm it becomes. So said panellists in a Finance Indaba talk entitled “Integrity Check: How do we fix a generation of unethical people?” Not just a political issue, South Africa’s widespread corruption problem creates serious economic constraints that filter down into business, creating a vicious cycle.

“Consequences of corruption threaten the functioning of the market economy, hindering much-needed capital investment into companies,” said panellist Eddie Fivaz, FD of TWK Agriculture. “This investment decline is devastating to both business and the country as a whole.”

Yet we need to highlight the fact that corruption is not just endemic to government entities, stressed Buhle Hanise, CFO of BAIC Automobile SA. Public and private entities constantly interact, she said, and as such are equally susceptible to corruption. “We need to ask who the government is doing business with.”

Regardless of the sector in which we work, she said, we need to go back to basics. “We must be ethical, genuine and authentic in all we do, always asking what the price of making a quick buck really is.” This is especially true of those who work in the finance industry and can be susceptible to fraudulent activity.

Taking an optimistic view, Buhle, who is also president of the African Women Chartered Accountants Forum (AWCA), said that most people in accounting understand this. “The CA profession is still credible, yet a few bad apples bring it into disrepute. We can’t make decisions based on bad apples: this is still a very lucrative profession and there is a future. If you don’t want to be ethical, don’t join the profession,” she added.

Her fellow panellist, Yusuf Bodiat, CFO of the Federated Employers Mutual Assurance Company (FEM), agreed, but stressed the broader challenges at play. If society consistently sees that there are no consequences for corruption, they slowly become desensitised to such behaviour, sometimes following suit.

Within corporations, he said, solutions to dealing with unethical conduct have not gone far enough. We don’t act on such behaviour as quickly and decisively as we should, he said. “The employee gets a written warning, essentially a slap on the wrist, instead of facing dismissal.”

“While we’re inclined to look for the good in people, if they are proven to be unethical, they should be suspended immediately,” Yusuf argued. “If they know they’ll keep their job, they’ll continue this damaging cycle of behaviour.”

Yet, how can we proactively instil ethics into our companies that are more impactful than codes of conduct that are signed and then promptly forgotten? “We need to instil ethical behaviour by building trust and developing an ethical culture,” suggested Eddie.

This comes down to leading by example. “I build trust by modelling the behaviour I want to see, treating employees fairly and ethically, avoiding micromanagement and supporting and being honest with my team, so that they can do the same,” he said. “Good leaders don’t force people to follow them, they invite them on a journey.”

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