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Thought Thursdays
Ethics – a different kind of disruptor


It is rare to read a news publication these days that doesn’t somewhere mention ethics. In most cases, the reported story came about as a result of a lack of ethics, sometimes on the part of an individual, and more often on the part of a group or organisation. This intangible source of capital – good ethics – belongs on the list of underutilised renewable resources to which South Africans ought to pay more attention.

And we are doing so. Serious efforts are being made to designate responsibility clearly for the governance and management of ethics in organisations. 

In the public sector, the Integrity Management Framework was introduced in 2011 to strengthen measures to prevent unethical conduct and promote integrity in the public service. Three new specialised roles are required: the ethics officer(s) at operational level, the ethics champion at executive level, and an ethics committee responsible for oversight. Similarly, the King Report on Corporate Governance for South Africa (the fourth iteration of which was released in November 2016), states that governing bodies should “lead ethically and effectively” (Principle 1) and should “delegate to management the responsibility for implementation and execution of the codes of conduct and ethics policies” (Principle 2, point 8). King IV also adds a lot more detail to the ethics mandate of the Social and Ethics Committee, first introduced as a mandatory committee of the board in the South African Companies Act (2008). 

Thus, as technological changes in the 21st century disrupt the world of work as we know it, creating jobs that were inconceivable 10 years ago, we should not fail to take note of the gradual professionalisation of a skill that is as ancient as civilisation itself: ethics. Or, more specifically, the governance and management of ethics. 

Let’s be clear: designating responsibility for ethics in an organisation does not exonerate everyone else from caring about behaving ethically. Rather, the prioritisation of ethics in these frameworks indicates that our understanding of group dynamics has matured, and we are taking the necessary steps to guard against the negative social forces that make ethical decision making in groups difficult. These are, among others, excessive subservience to authority, groupthink, fear, over-prioritising of social desirability and apathy. (In a commercial enterprise, you can add ‘excessive emphasis on financial performance’ to the list.) These negative dynamics can be diffused by even just one person standing up and asking the right question at the right moment, thereby exposing the hidden unethical dimension of the matter at hand. The difference is that nowadays, more and more, such a person has a specific job title that goes with a mandate to ensure that potential unethical dimensions in an organisation’s decision making are systematically exposed and resolved, through rigorous governance and management practices. Over time, this contributes to the establishment of an ethical culture, where group social forces support rather than undermine organisational integrity. Just as the risk officer ensures that the risk element of decisions is considered on an ongoing basis, slowly contributing to the organisation’s overall tolerance for risk, so the ethics officer implements the necessary policies and procedures that contribute to the organisation’s overall intolerance for unethical or ethically dubious actions. 

Sound difficult? It should.

Having the word ‘ethics’ in your job title comes with significant challenges. The role has built-in responsibilities that potentially require going against what is accepted among peers and superiors. It isn’t for everyone. And it demands niche training. On a personal level, working in the ethics space requires no small amount of conviction and courage, and these qualities must extend beyond the workplace. Ask any committed ethics officer and he or she will tell you that you have to ‘live’ your work, if you expect your colleagues to take your projects and interventions at the office seriously.

In southern Africa, presently, 744 persons are certified ethics officers. Each has completed the Ethics Officer Certification Programme (EOCP), the only course of its kind on the continent, delivered by The Ethics Institute. The EOCP offers a balance of theory and practical application, to ensure that the attendees understand the theory underlying organisational ethics, as well as the practical steps to take in implementing an ethics management programme. Many attendees do not have an ethics background, but have discovered, through their work in adjacent fields (such as risk, compliance, internal audit, forensics, legal and human resources), that ethics underpins much of what they do, and they want to gain an ethics competence. Attendees undergo five days of intensive in-class teaching by expert ethicists, and are then required to complete a practical assignment in an organisation of their choice to demonstrate their learning. Only those who pass this successfully receive their certification along with a unique ethics officer number. 

As the ethics profession grows, our understanding of organisational ethics will grow as well. The next step is the establishment of a professional association and, indeed, the Ethics Practitioners Association is due to be launched before the end of 2017. 

The point is that here, in South Africa, a nascent ethical infrastructure is being built, and it needs all hands on deck. The more ethically aware individuals there are embedded in public and private sector organisations throughout this country, the fewer scandals there are likely to be. It is not going to be easy – because managing and governing ethics is a complex task that requires niche training like the EOCP – and it is not going to be quick – because culture change is a notoriously slow process. But endemic corruption must be disrupted somehow. In the end, one’s professional choices often hinge on a single question: do you want to be part of the solution or part of the problem? 

Grace Garland.JPG

Grace Garland is the Communications and Membership Manager at The Ethics Institute​. She holds an Honours degree in history from the University of Cape Town and a Master’s in Business Administration from the University of Stellenbosch Business School. She is Certified Ethics Officer 737, having successfully completed the EOCP in June 2017. 

The Ethics Institute is an independent public institute producing original thought leadership and offering a range of ethics-related services and products. USB-ED is responsible for the certification of all Ethics Officers who successfully complete the EOCP course delivered by The Ethics Institute. 

Click here for more information on the upcoming EOCP, taking place in Cape Town 4-8 September 2017. 

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