How ethical are you?

Ask any person if they’re ethical and the answer will be an immediate, “Of course.”

Why is it, then, that we are experiencing a complete breakdown of ethical behaviour in the country?

Recent revelations about the looting of VBS Bank provides yet another example of alleged unethical, and illegal, actions on the part of people supposedly trusted as the custodians of money belonging to the poorest of the poor.

Those who have been named in the report by Advocate Terry Motau which he called “The Great Bank Heist” have been unanimous and loud in their denials. “Wasn’t me,” “Didn’t do it,” has been the predictable sing-song response from anyone alleged to have been involved in any form of wrong doing. Do they really think we’re that stupid?

Just this past week, after I declined an invitation to meet with an organisation that has been implicated in state capture, I was told by the person on the phone, “You do know that they’ve denied the allegations?”

Seems like denial is definitive. If I deny any wrongdoing … I’m innocent!

Now that I’m conducting in-house Masterclasses on ethics for the leaders of certain companies, I’ve had to exercise my mind around what ethics is and why we are ethical or unethical. My sense is that we learn our ethics at a very young age. If we have parents that teach us, “Don’t take that. It doesn’t belong to you,” we’ve got a better chance of growing up with sound ethical values than if we have parents who, when stopped for exceeding the speed limit, explain to the officer at their car window that their boss leant them his car and they are not used to driving it so they hadn’t realised the speed they were doing. This, in front of their children, who know that the car belongs to their dad …

Guess what the ethics of those kids will look like when they grow up?

So, what did your parents teach you? And what are you teaching your children about ethical conduct? And why is it that people have become so unethical?

I’ll leave the first two questions for you and tackle the third one myself. What determines how ethical we are lies a lot deeper than simply what we’ve been taught by our parents. Naturally, a good foundation (upbringing) helps, but many people got good foundations which they promptly ignored. Why? Because they secretly believe that the world owes them. They deserve more than others. They’re better than, smarter than, and more important than, others.

Their attitude is. “Flip the other people who are also struggling. If I can get whatever I want by unethical means, even if it’s at their expense, that just means I’m smarter than they are and that’s their problem.”

So unethical people convince themselves that they’re not dishonest – they’re actually smart. And they laugh up their sleeves at those who (they think) believe what they tell them.

Of course, there is a subtle but important difference between unethical and illegal conduct. For example, it may be considered unethical to be unfaithful to your partner but it’s not illegal. It’s however a short hop, skip and a jump from unethical to illegal. Some high profile cases will reveal this in due course.

President Ramaphosa has publicly called for swift and decisive action to be taken against those involved in the VBS Bank scandal. I second that. When justice is seen to be done, it serves as an example and a deterrent to other people who might have been thinking they would “very smartly” diddle others out of their money. We need to change the culture of unaccountability to one where everybody, repeat everybody, is held accountable for their actions – and swiftly.

I want to encourage you to do an “ethics audit” on your own behaviour. Do you, as a matter of routine, lie to avoid having to take responsibility for your actions or lack thereof? That’s a good place to start. Remember, ethics is about doing the right thing, even when no-one is watching.

We really could do with more of those kinds of people!

Alan Hosking is the Publisher of HR Future magazine,, @HRFuturemag. He is a recognised authority on leadership skills for the future and teaches business leaders and managers of all generations how to lead with integrity, purpose and agility. In 2018, he was named by US-based web site as one of the “Top 25 Future of Work Influencers to Follow on Twitter“.

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