Right, wrong, you, Nene ... what’s the difference?
We the ordinary citizens assume we're better than our public ‘servants', but I’m not so sure
You’re on your way to your beloved grandmother’s funeral. You’re late and let rip on the open high way. Out of nowhere a traffic cop jumps out of the bush and pulls you off the road. “Your journey ends here,” he drily informs you. You were travelling at 180km/h and that means you will be hauled off to the nearest magistrate’s court.
But since this is Saturday morning, you will spend the weekend in the slammer until the courts resume on Monday. Fear rips through your body. You’ve heard all the horror stories on TV about what happens to decent people inside SA’s prison cells. Appearing in court means that the news of your arrest will be public knowledge; your reputation will take a knock.
Then the cop informs you that it’s his birthday. What would you do? Please be honest.
I posed that question to an audience of clergymen and women this week during a talk I gave on ethical leadership. It did not surprise me that several hands went up. Pay the bribe. Get on with your life. Save yourself the embarrassment. And reach granny’s funeral on time.
The rage of the times is the unethical leadership of our political leaders. The media remind us daily of cabinet members’ involved in state capture. Quite a few of these politicians are known to have lied under oath. Former finance minister Nhlanhla Nene eventually confessed that he met several times with the Guptas and offered to resign. The fact that Nene fell on his sword simply begged the question: but what about all the rest of them?
Steinhoff is now a cautionary tale in business school case studies about deep corruption in the private sector. Business leaders are not better than our so-called public servants who are more adept at helping themselves than serving the people.
Our outrage knows no bounds. We judge harshly. By implication, we the ordinary citizens of the country are better than them.
I’m not so sure. Under the right conditions, most of us are susceptible to unethical behaviour. After all, nobody will know that you bribed the cop and so every single day there is this dirty dance between corrupt citizens – think of the home affairs official and the passport seeker, the teacher and the parents of a failing child, the teachers’ union and the educator desiring the vacant principal’s post.
Later this week I will be addressing the South African Dental Association on the subject given to me: ethics and the dentist. So I called some friends who are dentists and asked them, to what extent is ethics a problem in this elite profession? I have a list of three pages of examples of everyday corruption in the entanglement of the dentist and the patient.
The dentist who charges the patient for work not done and then claims from the medical aid. The dentist extracting perfectly healthy front teeth of a teenager in search of the passion gap. The married patient showing up with his “skelmpie” (girlfriend) for dental treatment on the family medical aid, which of course the wife or husband knows nothing about. The dentist using cheap materials for denture repairs, but continuing to charge the patient via the medical aid as if these were the approved but more expensive items. The list of corrupt practices in this profession alone is endless but extends to every facet of our society.
Ethical behaviour is a practice, something you do. The answer is not to include ethics in the curriculum and thereby hoping to change human behaviour.
In our hyper-religious society we know intuitively the difference between right and wrong, and yet we often make the wrong choices when faced with ethical dilemmas.
None of us starts off doing wrong; often we stray. How does this happen? Unethical behaviour is a boundary practice. It starts with the decision you make as a leader to push for the appointment of your family member in your company or university. Nothing wrong in legal terms if the person is qualified and happens to be the best person for the job. But is it ethical?
Questions will always hover over you as a leader, whether your spouse or child got the job because of your direct or indirect influence as a senior person in the organisation. When you stray across this ethical borderline, it becomes easier to cross into even more dangerous territory and lean on your staff to accommodate a family appointment.
So next time you condemn, and rightly so, the unethical behaviour of corrupt politicians and greedy capitalists, ask yourself whether you would wish the cop a happy birthday.