The War on Integrity and Ethics

by Pieter le Roux | May 19, 2021

I am going to dare to say that if the world had an Integrity and/or Ethics barometer, it would be at its lowest level in decades, maybe even in a century.
Why would I say something like this? Well, just take a deeper look into various aspects of the world we live in presently, and please do not limit yourself to a particular continent or country.

South Africa is my home and a place dear to my heart, but I need to start here:

  • When it comes to politics and the leaders of our country, we have had many examples. Specifically, under the leadership of JZ (Jacob Zuma) we saw a vile period where corrupt practices, nepotism and self-interest came close to destroying our beautiful country.
  • We have seen senior government officials and political leaders being implicated in corrupt and fraudulent activities.
  • The Gupta family and their business empire, that benefitted tremendously from the JZ era.
  • The examples are however not only linked to our government, political organisations and/or their cronies. During the past few years we saw the impact of a disregard for Integrity and Ethics spread to the private sector, with the following coming to mind:
    • Bosasa
    • EOH
    • KPMG
    • McKinsey & Company
    • Mirror Trading International
    • SAP
    • Sharemax
    • Steinhoff
    • Tongaat Hulett
    • VBS Bank
There are more examples but let us move on.
When we look globally, there are even more examples, personally the following stand out:
  • Donald Trump, for 4 years the President of the most powerful nation on earth – a man who was supported by approximately 50% of voting America, who was, in my opinion, in the business of promoting loyalty over honesty and doing the right thing to “Make America Great Again”. There will be various arguments to support his tenure, including the favorable impact of his tenure on business, but is this sufficient and what was the real cost of this to society in general?
  • Fake news has become a part of our daily life. Whether it is created to win a presidency, down a competitor, drive a political agenda or even create a narrative that will drive sales or market prices.
  • Large technology companies (Google, Facebook, Instagram and Whatsapp [and probably a few others]) spying on their consumers, tracking their movements, and selling their private information.
  • There are many other examples to consider, but for me I also still have a few unanswered questions surrounding the Ethics behind and Integrity of most crypto currencies (like Bitcoin) – I believe we are being sold a narrative of anonymity and a chance to make money that is driving the sale of crypto currencies (like Bitcoin), while in fact providing support to criminal empires (terrorism, the drug and arms trade, hacking and other activities of the dark web to name a few) to grow and even boom while they also stay anonymous (effectively sidestepping anti-money laundering checks and controls). For this reason, together with the energy consumed to produce one Bitcoin, I will personally stay clear of all unregulated crypto currencies.

What is the definition of Integrity and Ethics?

Integrity is the practice of being honest and showing a consistent and uncompromising adherence to strong moral and ethical principles and values”1.

Ethics or moral philosophy is a branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct” 2.

“In ethics, integrity is regarded as the honesty and truthfulness or accuracy of one’s actions. Integrity can stand in opposition to hypocrisy, in that judging with the standards of integrity involves regarding internal consistency as a virtue and suggests that parties holding within themselves apparently conflicting values should account for the discrepancy or alter their beliefs”1.

What Integrity and Ethics means for me?

When you consider the impact of your actions or in some instances inaction on society, your co-workers, your business relationships and on the environment, it is important to think of this holistically. Although your actions are not necessarily only physical in nature, for me Newton’s third law comes to mind and is equally important when dealing with the nonphysical “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” – when you make a decision, whether it is to execute an action or decide on a route of inaction it not only impacts you, but also other people, their families, your co-workers, other businesses and/or the environment.

On occasion I have come across people that like to separate their belief system from their business activities – using this as an excuse to do business in a certain manner. I believe business is part of my ecosystem and that I should thus do business in the way I practice my belief system.

No matter what your belief system, or even if you have no fixed belief system, the moment that you deceive yourself by selectively applying your beliefs, is the moment that you start losing your grip on Integrity and Ethics.

By being pure in the application of your beliefs on a consistent basis is not easy, but it is important to have a process whereby you evaluate the decisions you make, both personally and in business. Nobody is perfect and you will not always make the right decisions, but it is important to learn from these experiences and adjust course where possible or extricate yourself from the relationship (whether personal or in business) when your beliefs are being undermined.

When making decisions I regularly find myself in a position where I need to consult my friends, colleagues, and experts to make a call and from time-to-time it is tempting to take a shortcut when it comes to Integrity and Ethicsit is however equally interesting to see how with this approach and by measuring my decisions against my belief system, I will mostly be able to come up with an idea, concept, or way to make it work that does not put my Integrity and Ethics at risk. Yes, mostly – sometimes it is just wrong and does not fit in with your belief system. When this happens, it is better to let it go – I have found that it may take you on a different route, or may even change your plans, but it is much more rewarding in the long-run.

To me Integrity and Ethics also means that when I “shake hands” with somebody or make a promise, I will not backtrack and will do my darndest to ensure that I uphold my end of the deal, no matter the impact on or cost to me.

What needs to be done to restore Integrity and Ethics to its rightful stature in society

I am going to tell you a secret, something I am not very proud of at this moment in time. For 7 years of my life, I studied and worked hard to become a Chartered Accountant in South Africa, and yes, I am a member of SAICA (The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants).

Integrity and Ethics is something that I was taught right from the beginning when I studied at Stellenbosch University. More importantly however, I was honoured to complete my articles with an incredible friend and under the leadership of a great mentor, at PwC in Stellenbosch. With the help of my friend and under the leadership of my mentor, Integrity and Ethics became alive (something that was not just written in a textbook).

Over the past few years, the chartered accountancy profession in South Africa has been marred by a slew of cases where their members have been involved in unethical business practices, including corruption and fraud. For me this is the sign of a serious endemic problem that requires an equally serious solution – the type of solution that requires research, a redesign of the system and that will probably hurt more before its impact is felt and things get better.

We cannot cure this disease by slapping on a Band-Aid…, but this is what is being done at present (or rather this is the impression that I am getting). You cannot address an endemic problem of this nature simply by instituting a once-off disciplinary levy and requiring a certain amount of CPD (Continuous Professional Development) hours being spent on Ethics training by your members.

We need to hold our leaders to a higher standard, as I believe that change happens from the top down. The example being set by our leaders around the globe is core to creating a culture of Integrity and Ethics. When we have presidents, ministers, chief executive officers, boards of directors, managers, teachers, lecturers, etc. leading with Integrity and Ethics, these examples flow through to society in general and creates a more balanced world where the impact of our action or inaction is considered holistically before we make a decision.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *