7th Annual Ethics Conference reflections

by Grace Garland | Published on 25 May 2017 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

It is a given that the tangibles of conferences are always going to be heavy. I have never attended one that didn’t clearly involve extensive prior organising and lugging. But what about the intangibles? What is an acceptable level of “heaviness” in the material to which delegates are exposed?

For me, and some of my colleagues at The Ethics Institute, the day of the Annual Ethics Conference started and ended with carrying heavy things. TEI’s stand in the display area had to be set (and spruced) up before the delegates’ arrival, which involved a considerable amount of lugging, followed by heated tussles over how best to arrange the pamphlets. Finally, with TEI banners proudly up, books on display, and a strategically placed pot plant, our spot was ready. Eight or so hours later, we did it all in reverse: stowing banners, boards and remaining books in our car boots, and leaving nothing but a blank table behind us.

It is a given that the tangibles of conferences are always going to be heavy. I have never attended one that didn’t clearly involve extensive prior organising and lugging. But what about the intangibles? What is an acceptable level of “heaviness” in the material to which delegates are exposed?

I don’t know the answer to the question for other conferences on other topics; in my experience, the opportunity to deep-dive and challenge accepted norms is often missed. Not at this conference, however. Perhaps, by its very nature, the concept of ethics carries a certain weightiness. Perhaps, in the current political climate in South Africa, ethics is not something easily made light of. Whatever the reason, this particular conference, the Annual Ethics Conference, was as mentally demanding to attend as it was physically strenuous to advertise at.

And yet, paradoxically, I can hardly remember leaving such an event feeling more energised. For the professionals in the room who work in the field of organisational ethics – myself included – this was a day spent among members of the same team. And, from the moment Trevor Manuel began his pillory of Eskom’s failures of corporate governance, it promised to be a day of undaunted “ethics talk.” Heavy stuff? Certainly. Was the crowd up for it? Well, judging by the depth of interaction during the successive question sessions: absolutely.

 In fact, it is one of the questions raised during the day that has stayed with me most. It was asking what can be done when official leaders fail – as they are so patently doing in South Africa at the moment – by the ordinary citizen. Or, put differently: “Has the time come for a new conceptualisation of ethical leadership, in which the onus shifts from the tone at the top, to distributed accountability at the bottom?” This is an interesting theoretical discussion in its own right and one which the line-up of speakers touched on indirectly in various ways during the day. Beyond the theory, it also struck me as a vital call-to-action for all who feel concerned about the status quo, not to wait around for our elected leaders to demonstrate moral courage but to take up the mantle of ethical leadership ourselves. Too many South Africans have interpreted the unpunished nefarious behaviour of elected officials as a green light to de-prioritise their own scruples. We should be doing the opposite: rejecting standards of behaviour that don’t pass ethical muster and compensating by living the universal values – such as honesty, fairness and respect – among one another.

A further observation: the theme of technology was present throughout the day. We learnt from Colin Habberton of BrandsEye, that computer algorithms, corroborated by human verifiers, can interpret social media commentary with 95% accuracy, offering companies a hitherto unimagined level of clarity into their stakeholders’ perceptions. Thus, the million-dollar ethical question that every organisation wants to know – “Do our stakeholders trust us?” – can now be answered more accurately than ever before. We also learnt, from Guendalina Dondé, visiting from the Institute of Business Ethics in London, how mobile applications are being used to assist people in grappling with ethical dilemmas at work. This sparked intense reaction from some delegates – “But you can’t programme the complexity of real life!” – which, to me, indicates that next year we should look even closer at the unavoidable topic of ethics and artificial intelligence.

Lastly, as I looked around the room, I was awed at how much we stand to learn from one another if we create the spaces (such as this type of conference) to share stories. For example, I probably speak for most other delegates when I say that it was invaluable to hear Malik Melamu’s personal stories about managing ethics across cultures in multiple African countries. Melamu, the current CEO of MTN Sudan, told us of an experience in the DRC where he got a call from two employees who were being held up by renegade officers with machine guns; they wanted to know if they could pay the men the bribe, even though the code of conduct said they shouldn’t. Melamu enacted his response: “What are you asking me for? He’s got a gun! Pay the bribe!” Everyone laughed. And I thought: in this field so notorious for grey areas and difficult decisions, ethics practitioners have much to gain from sharing real-life anecdotes. It helps – not just for learning, but also to see the funny side of what we do.

I can’t close off this brief reflection without saying what was missing on the day. Our CEO, Prof Deon Rossouw, was attending the memorial service of his daughter, who passed away unexpectedly days before. His absence was felt by all. Dr Leon van Vuuren led a moment of silence in the morning, where we all held him and his family in our thoughts. The success of the conference was thanks largely to Deon’s vision and magnetism, and the fact that the team was able to pull it off in his absence, is a testament to his leadership.