Does one swallow make a summer?

Does one swallow make a summer?

By: Liezl Groenewald

South Africans have recently again been made aware of the poor treatment whistleblowers receive. In their testimonies at the State Capture Inquiry during March 2021, two specific whistleblowers, a former partner at Bain SA, Athol Williams and former Trillian Management Consulting CEO, Bianca Goodson, brought the plight of whistleblowers to the attention of not only Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo but also the nation.

In reaction to Goodson’s breakdown during her testimony, Zondo expressed his concern about the lack of protection to whistleblowers and his interest in evaluating the adequacy or otherwise of protection of whistleblowers in South Africa. Later in March, in reaction to Williams’ appeal to the Inquiry to provide protections for whistleblowers, Zondo reaffirmed that strong protection for whistleblowers is needed in South Africa. These remarks led to a spike in discussions in the social and other media about the current lack of protection and the detriments generally suffered by whistleblowers. Some commentators did, however, express the hope that Zondo’s interest in the matter might lead to action in terms of the development of an effective national whistleblower protection policy. In many people’s view, Zondo became a swallow with the potential to make a summer.

But what should whistleblowers be protected from? Discussions with, and testimonies from, whistleblowers make it clear that there are numerous ways in which organisations mistreat those employees who have exposed wrongdoing in their midst. The Protected Disclosures Amendment Act (Act 5 of 2017) (PDA) states that employees are protected against occupational detriment, where the latter is defined as the threat or the carrying out of actions that may harm the employment status of an employee or worker in response to their making a protected disclosure.

These actions are any disciplinary action, dismissal, suspension, demotion, harassment or intimidation, transfer against an employee’s will, refusal of or provision of an adverse reference, disadvantageous alteration of a term or condition of employment or retirement; denial of appointment to any employment, profession, or office, and subjection to a civil claim for the alleged breach of a duty of confidentiality arising from the disclosure of a criminal offence or a contravention or failure to comply with the law. Besides, the Act protects whistleblowers against “being otherwise adversely affected in respect of his or her employment, profession or office, including employment opportunities, work security and the retention or acquisition of contracts to perform work or render services.”

Theoretically, it should therefore not have been necessary for a whistleblower interviewed by Fuchs and Groenewald (2018 – 2019) to state that “you get targeted, bullied, emotional blackmail [sic], emotional abuse – everything to get rid of you as soon as possible”. Neither should it have been necessary for Williams and Goodson to become unemployed and “unemployable”. If the protection legislation in South Africa was effective, no whistleblower should be victimised in any form.

What is often forgotten is that whistleblowers also suffer consequences not contemplated by the PDA and that are external to the working environment. Williams alluded to some of these: “… one of the hardest things when being a whistleblower is feelings of alienation. You feel alone. You feel abandoned. My business buddies turned their backs, every friend I had at Bain turned their backs on me”. Goodson has, on various platforms, stated that she suffers / suffered from major depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, her family was negatively affected, and her finances ruined. These detriments are echoed by others who have taken a stance against unethical conduct. Other whistleblowers, such as Xola Banisi (who spoke up about corruption concerning two tenders at Bloem Water) and Moses Phakwe (ANC municipal councillor, who had attempted to expose corruption in the Municipality), have both been gunned down because of their moral courage to blow the whistle.

From my reading, the PDA is a good piece of legislation. There are, however, several reasons why the PDA seems to be ineffective in protecting whistleblowers. These are (1) organisations do not heed the Act; (2) do not create awareness about the provisions of the Act among their stakeholders; (3) do not act on their promises regarding the protection of whistleblowers against retaliation as communicated through their whistleblowing policies; (4) do not act against victimisers; and (5) do not provide holistic support to whistleblowers that include access to, for example, psychological and legal services. These reasons will be explored at another time.

The question now is whether another amendment of the PDA will result in better protection of whistleblowers in South Africa. How can our protection legislation address detriments such as ostracization, loneliness, depression, financial bankruptcy, becoming unemployable, and death? Broad protection and assistance by an independent organisation or institution are required such as being provided by Huis Voor Klokkenluiders, the Dutch Whistleblowing Authority, the Platform to Protect Whistleblowers in Africa (PPLAAF) and the newly established Whistleblower-Herz, Germany’s first non-profit whistleblower support organisation. These organisations provide general advice to whistleblowers, investigation of reports, legal counsel and financial support, assistance with the preparation of their testimonies to relevant authorities and evaluating risks they face when promoting their cases on national and international media. A glaring gap in the offered services exists, however, in so far as it concerns the provision of psychological support.

By establishing an independent organisation like the aforementioned in South Africa, many detriments suffered by whistleblowers, including occupational detriment, can be prevented and/or addressed. Deputy Chief Justice Raymond Zondo is but one swallow in a position of authority who spoke out about the lack of protection for whistleblowers. This is indeed a reason for celebration. However, South Africa cannot rely on him alone to effect changes. A concerted effort by several role players is required to lobby for the establishment of a whistleblower protection organisation funded by, for example, corporate South Africa or a philanthropist. One swallow does not make a summer.


Fuchs, K. and Groenewald, L. 2018 – 2019. Personal interviews with whistleblowers.

Ngatane, N. March 2021. Williams appeals to Zondo inquiry to provide protection for whistleblowers. 24 March. [Online] Available at [Accessed on 19 April 2021].

Mawande AmaShabalala, M. 2021. Protecting whistle-blowers ‘critical’ in corruption fight, says Zondo after witness breaks down at commission. 4 March. [Online] Available at [Accessed on 19 April 2021].

Liezl BA Circle

Liezl Groenewald is a Senior Manager: Organisational Ethics Development at The Ethics Institute. She is also the author of the Whistleblowing Management Handbook.

Was I brave and strong and true?

By: Rehilwe Senatla

Was I brave, strong and true?

I navigated through standards as opposed to grades in my schooling. This is a time when school would begin with prayers at an assembly session every morning. This session in my school would alter between Christian, Islam, Hindu, and Baha’i faiths as the school was all-inclusive and accommodative of all beliefs. The school diary had the school rules splashed in bold on the first page (in hindsight I see how this was intentional as a scare tactic) but did not particularly have a Code of Ethics that we could pledge allegiance to. The back cover of this diary had a song that we all subscribed to across all faiths found, one which you would find us no longer singing but screaming out loud in shared bravado… ♫ Was I brave and strong and true? Did I fill the world with love my whole life through? ♪ [song by Leslie Bricusse from the 1969 film Goodbye Mr Chips]

In singing this song, we would be forced to reflect and reset our moral compasses. One would find him/herself fully aware of the service s/he owed not only to the school but to each other. The song, perhaps one might even call it an ethical development of sorts, would urge us to be aware of our efforts, our actions, and our behaviour concerning the school and others.

Through formal education, learners and teachers alike acquire knowledge and skills that are vital in the workplace. The true essence of education, one that I am in favour of and is in accordance with Greek thought, is that of education as the moulding of character consistent with that which is ideal. That is; to ultimately produce a responsible citizen rather than an autonomous personality or constricted specialist. Aristotle put it rather eloquently by saying “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”. Given our country’s education system which currently generally finds itself in a vast tangled vortex marred with scandals, corruption, legal cases of negligence, and recent bullying scenarios with dire consequences, it has become rather urgent, crucial, and necessary to find space for ethics teaching in today’s curriculum.

The social reality is that schools do not exist in a vacuum but are part of a larger society, and teachers and learners are active members of this society. They, therefore, have obligations that are demanded by the reciprocity of human relations within this society. Schools now need to focus beyond academic excellence through hard work and discipline and play their part in improving society. Education can no longer only be about the absorption of knowledge, particularly at this time where new technologies have taken over personal interactions resulting in learning becoming an impersonal process.

Justice and empathy as promoted by the Golden Rule (treating others as one would want to be treated) need to find residence on the chalkboard. The reciprocity or reversibility found in this Rule is key to moral development and behaviour (moral motivation). It is in putting yourself in another person’s shoes (social perspective-taking) that one learns about doing good, as well as on the mutualism found in our human relations and our social interconnections. The introduction of this broad cultural education (called Paideia in ancient Greece) as part of the curriculum in schools is beneficial in the following ways:

  • It will help learners become good citizens (socialization argument);
  • help students live a good life (quality of life argument); and
  • lead to improved results/performance (the tool argument).

(Gardelli, Alerby & Perssons, 2014)

Business has adapted fittingly to turbulent times over the years by introducing ethics programmes. We now need teachers and learners to be sensitized and guided on how to act. I believe that it is only through the institutionalization of ethics in schools that teachers and learners can be “ethically insured” so to speak. That is; teaching or obeying school rules will thus become easier given the prior teaching and learning on ethics.

The absence of ethics teaching has resulted in educated monsters roaming our streets and boardrooms, some highly qualified and skilled with powerful positions. I look at some of them and ponder what their response would be when, at the end of their careers or even earthly lives, they are asked “were you brave and strong and true?”…

Rehilwe Senatla holds  a MPhil Workplace Ethics Degree and is employed as Project Administrator by The Ethics Institute .

Combining ethics and compliance: A systems psychodynamic inquiry into practices and outcomes

Combining ethics and compliance: A systems psychodynamic inquiry into practices and outcomes

By: Prof JJ de Klerk

University of Stellenbosch Business School

This article is a condensed version of the original scientific article that was published in: Business Ethics, the Environment and Responsibility, and can be obtained at:

This version of the article was rewritten to present a non-academic manuscript that would be easily readable and understandable to the layperson. As such, all citations and references have been removed. Please consult the original article for the scientific substance underlying the conceptualisations and the citations and sources consulted.

A senior manager responsible for managing ethics and compliance became globally a standard appointment in most larger organisations in an attempt to curb ethics and compliance failures. Compliance can be defined as adherence to all the laws, regulations, rules, and policies governing an organization, whereas ethics is a self-regulatory approach of adhering to moral practices beyond compliance. Ethics and compliance programmes are run separately in some organisations, while most organisations coalesce them conceptually and structurally.

Research consistently indicates that combining ethics and compliance tends to have adverse consequences for ethics. This raises the question: Why does the combination of ethics and compliance have an unanticipated adverse effect on ethics and yet remain popular? Whereas previous research demonstrates that compliance dominates ethics, this article provides deeper insight into why this happens. This inquiry shows that combining ethics and compliance remains attractive because of its function to repress anxieties and provide psychological comfort. However, adverse consequences to ethics are to be expected.

The precarious popularity of combining ethics and compliance

The role of a senior manager responsible for managing ethics and compliance emerged in the 1980s after high-profile scandals evoked negative public perceptions about the ethics of business. As result, regulations by authoritative institutions, such as the United States Federal Sentencing Guideline Manual, Sarbanes–Oxley Act and King IV prescribed that organisations should appoint senior managers responsible for ensuring overall compliant and ethical business conduct, influencing the management of ethics and compliance globally. The title of chief ethics and compliance officer (CECO) is used in this writing to address managers who bear overall responsibility for ethics and compliance.

Conceptually, ethics and compliance can be viewed as opposite ends on a continuum of moral behaviour and are supposed to add complementary value to each other. A compliance approach provides essential governance to meet legal and regulatory requirements, whereas an ethics approach promotes moral self-regulation based on values and integrity. It is often believed that combining compliance and ethics should promote a balance between control to discourage legal transgressions (compliance) and moral self-regulation to encourage an ethical culture to flourish. However, the domination of compliance in its legalistic orientation over promoting ethical values is consistently confirmed in research. Moreover, running ethics programmes from a compliance-based structure tends to be at the peril of ethics. Although compliance may lead to improved legal awareness, it does not promote ethical behaviour beyond compliance. Combining ethics and compliance can be deceptive in the face of its potentially adverse influences on ethical behaviour, notwithstanding anticipated synergies. This paradoxical outcome stimulated this inquiry to find answers

There is increasing recognition that much of what drives behaviour and decisions are rooted in the unconscious – i.e, mental processes of which the individual is unaware, but nonetheless exert a direct effect on behaviour. Systems psychodynamic theory (SPT) is useful to uncover unconsciously motivated systemic drivers of perplexing phenomena in organisational systems. By making the unconscious mind and its workings conscious, systems psychodynamic interpretations construe explanations of potential behavioural forces. The systems psychodynamic inquirer takes an interpretive stance, scrutinises, and interprets observations of the organisational system in terms of SPT to extract cues about what could be happening, which are driven by plausibility rather than indisputable accuracy.

Anxiety and psychological defences

Executives are experiencing more anxiety than ever before. Anxiety in small quantities can be beneficial to keep one focused on goals, whereas excessive anxiety can be overwhelming. In order to contain anxiety, psychological defences such as denial, projection and rationalisation are unconsciously mobilised to fend off its paralysing effects. Although defence mechanisms contain anxiety at tolerable levels, they have a deceptive ability to overpower rational thinking.

Bureaucratisation of ethics erodes an ethical culture

Ethical scandals create widespread social resentment, casting doubt on the competence and character of executives in general. In the meantime, the media, the public and organisations’ boards project a fantasy of omnipotent control onto executives – the ability to regulate everyone and everything in their organisations. Executives must cope with simultaneous feelings of anxiety and projected omnipotence. When executives identify with these projections, they assume custody of these fantasies, which increase their anxiety.

A compliance orientation attributes ethics or compliance failures to insufficient governance and control. Although control is indispensable to provide guidance and standardise regulatory approaches, anxiety often leads to over-control. Control and punishment of misconduct signal to stakeholders that the organization upholds standards. Being in control represents a badge of honour, whereas the apparent lack of control is a sign of incompetence. The need for control can be more easily contained through a compliance focus because of its clear prescriptions, rather than through the ambiguity of ethics.

However, an over-reliance on control tends to transmute into an ‘audit culture’, in which ethical principles are bureaucratised, with those who develop rules and regulations doing moral thinking on behalf of others. Personal accountability is then replaced with control under which individuals are subjected to the scrutiny of compliance auditors. This erodes moral self-regulation, causing employees to feel less accountable for the ethical consequences of their decisions. In contrast, an ethical culture is effective in rendering both ethical and compliance behaviour because ethics, which is rooted in self-regulation, stimulate psychological ownership of one’s actions.

Ethics and compliance represent two distinct disciplines originating from different fields of science. Compliance is rooted in legal, accounting and auditing sciences, which objectives are to ensure that the organisation and employees remain within minimum legal regulations. Compliance with the minimum letter of the law represses moral conscience and dilute morality to legal absolutism, causing the organisational culture to regress to a low-road ethical approach. In contrast, business ethics stems from moral philosophy and organisational behaviour. Ethics is about doing what is morally right, beyond what is required by legislation. Control is rooted in intrinsic self-regulation and psychological ownership of moral behaviour, rather than in extrinsic regulatory control.

Most compliance officers have a legal or auditing background and are trained to provide authoritative interpretations of rules and regulations, rather than focusing on ethical norms. They tend to have a legalistic interpretation of moral challenges and identify uncritically with the rule-based nature of compliance. Compliance officers tend to function from an external locus of control – authoritative legislators decide what is right and wrong on their behalf.

In contrast, morality and values are more ambiguous and open to interpretation. Ethics officers must be able to work with much less proscription and from an internal locus of control; they work with much more ambiguity, yet still take accountability for their actions. Hence, it is unsurprising that most CECOs identify more strongly with being a compliance officer than an ethics officer and it is unrealistic to expect them to be equally strong advocates for both high-road ethical behaviour and rule-based compliance.

Compliance Becomes ‘more equal’ than ethics

When combining ethics and compliance, the rule-based nature of compliance offers more psychological comfort and behavioural clarity than the ambiguity that accompanies ethics. Inevitably, compliance grows to become ‘more equal’ than ethics and dominates ethics.

Employees are intrigued with top management as imaginary parental figures who must be followed and obeyed. They scrutinise executives’ actions for implicit messages and cues about acceptable ways of thinking and behaving. When executives combine ethics and compliance, they send a message that ethics equates to compliance, implicitly endorsing a culture of moral mediocrity. It is to be expected that when ethics and compliance coalesce, compliance becomes ‘more equal’ and dominate ethics in the collective unconscious of the organisation.

The attraction of combining ethics and compliance

Most organisations merge ethics and compliance into one function under compliance. This can largely be accredited to anxiety in the organisational system. The need for structural solutions almost automatically escalates when anxiety increases. Executives are likely to be lured into combining ethics and compliance structurally, influenced by the fantasy that this can offer ultimate control and the solution for ethical and compliance challenges. The organisational structure then serves to contain anxiety under the veil of pursuing effective work against a threat of ethical or compliance failures.

Dependency on authoritative bodies

The urge for structural solutions raises uncertainty as to what this structure should look like. Rooted in early childhood, we have a dependency on parental figures to protect us from danger and tell us what to do. Dependency triggers anxiety entrenched in the insecurities that stem from becoming accountable for one’s actions. Dependency manifests in executives as feelings of inadequacy and insecurity. Executives may then project their anxiety onto authoritative institutions as imaginary parental figures to provide guidance on how to design the structure. There appears to be a universal trend to discuss ethics and compliance as a singular construct in authoritative literature and legislative regulations. This fusion appears to be assumed as a cue that ethics and compliance should coalesce. Adhering dependently to presumed prescriptions of legislative regulations alleviates anxiety and fends off apprehension that the organisation can be taken to task (or even to court) should something untoward happen. However, as far as could be established, none of the relevant regulations notes an expectation that ethics and compliance must be combined.

Fighting through control

When executives perceive they are not in control, they feel incompetent, which gives rise to the anxiety of being exposed as imposters. It is a common phenomenon that organisations become obsessed with control out of a fear of losing control. Aggressive attempts to gain control often results in excessive regulations and audits.

When an entity cannot contain its anxiety about not being in control, it tends to project the anxiety onto another part of the system as a scapegoat. Executives then project lower-level employees as the ethically risky ones whose behaviour needs to be regulated. Projective anxiety often results in knee-jerk policymaking and auditing. This dynamic increase pressure to replace adherence to aspirational moral values with formalised control, rendering the combination of ethics and compliance as an attractive structural option.


“We did not do anything illegal!” is a popular rationalisation when organisations are exposed as being involved in technically legal, but unethical, activities. Much of the lure of combining ethics and compliance is rooted in the rationalised freedom that compliance provides to enact ethically questionable behaviour, as long as one does not transgress the letter of the law. The rationalisation that legal compliance is morally sufficient lower ethical expectations while maintaining phantasies of being morally legitimate. Rationalisations allow executives to justify ethically questionable acts, repressing feelings of guilt. This psychological comfort entices organisations to combine ethics and compliance.


Although the decision to combine ethics and compliance is conceivably made with the best intentions, describing this practice only from rational decision-making is inadequate. It is hoped that these insights will arm organisations to resist the temptation to indiscriminately combine ethics and compliance into one structure or programme, and rather to keep them separate and distinctive – with compliance being active participants in ethics programmes and ethics officers being fully involved in compliance activities. Organisations should consider the combination of ethics and compliance carefully before pursuing it or refrain from combining ethics and compliance wherever reasonably possible. If the combination cannot be avoided for practical reasons, carefully considered mitigation measures should be implemented and managed to counter the adverse dynamics.

If you want more information, you are welcome to contact the author at:

Full reference: De Klerk, J.J. (2021). Combining ethics and compliance: A systems psychodynamic inquiry into praxis and outcomes. Business Ethics, Environment & Responsibility, 00, 1-15.

How we contribute to protect whistleblowers

By: Liezl Groenewald

The whistleblowing landscape has changed significantly over the last years. High profile cases have prompted new whistleblower protection regulations and legislation across the globe. But whistleblowing is no longer just a matter of legal interest. It has also become a societal issue. Names such as Edward Snowden, Julien Assange, or Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning have been known worldwide for their efforts to uncover injustice (Thüsing and Forst, 2016, 3-4)[1]. In South Africa whistleblowers such as Bianca Goodson, Suzanne Daniels, Angelo Agrizzi and Cynthia Stimpel have been central in exposing state capture. One thing that has emerged, in addition to the extent to which the country and its citizens have been played and done in, is that some of these whistleblowers had no joy by reporting through the safe reporting channels offered by their organisations. For this their employers could, of course, be blamed because they did not act on the reports. But it could also be that their reporting systems are ineffective, do not honour the confidentiality of reports, or the anonymity of reporters.

TEI has realised the importance of the quality of safe reporting systems for these very reasons. As a result, we developed, in 2007 already, a Standard for Independent External Whistleblowing Hotline Service Providers (EO1.1.1) who operate a 24/7 call centre. This Standard was redeveloped in 2018 to make provision for technological and other advancements in the industry. The redeveloped Standard, applicable to safe reporting systems managed by independent safe reporting service providers, and renamed SafeLine-EX, is a best practice standard that specifies requirements for a quality safe reporting system managed by independent safe reporting service providers. Independent safe reporting service providers use the Standard to demonstrate their ability to consistently provide quality services that protect whistle-blowers.

But being cognisant of the fact that some organisations prefer an inhouse, 24/7 safe reporting capacity, TEI also developed SafeLine-IN, based on the same principles and norms as SafeLine-EX and aimed at effective services that protect whistleblowers.

In 2020 we took the Standard further with the input of industry experts, by developing SafeLine-DigEX which specifies requirements for a quality digital safe reporting system managed by independent safe reporting service providers using only digital platforms.

What are these Standards?

SafeLine-EX, SafeLine-IN and SafeLine-DigEX are a set of best practice norms for professional and ethical conduct for external and internal safe reporting service providers (hereafter ‘service providers’) operating their own facilities or using only digital platforms that enable client organisations (hereafter ‘clients’) to report observed or perceived unethical conduct confidentially and anonymously.

What are the objectives of the Standards?

The objectives are:

  • To strengthen the external, internal, and digital safe reporting industry by establishing a best practice industry standard.
  • To provide quality assurance to organisations requiring such safe reporting services.
  • To create conditions in which would-be whistleblowers can report misconduct with confidence.
  • To differentiate legitimate from non-legitimate service providers.
  • To discourage sub-standard service providers from entering the market; and
  • To certify service providers as a “TEI-Certified Safe Reporting Service Provider”.

How do these Standards benefit independent service providers and clients?

Complying with these Standards helps service providers to:

  • Organise their internal systems and processes.
  • Improve the efficiency of their internal systems and processes.
  • Continually improve their service delivery.
  • Create conditions in which would-be whistleblowers are able to report misconduct with confidence; and
  • Provide assurance to client organisations in terms of:
    • confidentiality of information,
    • protection of whistle-blowers’ identity,
    • professional service delivery, and
    • quality of reports.

What are the five guiding norms and standards for service providers?

The three Standards are based on five guiding norms for service providers, which balance client needs, whistleblower interests and operational requirements. These norms and guiding standards are:




A commitment to integrity requires that the service provider is honest, adheres to clear moral principles, and is professional. To demonstrate commitment to the norm of integrity, service providers must comply with three standards, namely (1) being honest, (2) ensuring that safe reporting service provider staff are of a high ethical and professional standing, and (3) ensuring complete, accurate and truthful reporting.


A commitment to efficiency requires that the safe reporting service provider delivers high-quality information to clients in a timely manner. To demonstrate commitment to the norm of efficiency, service providers must comply with five standards, namely, (1) performing services in a timely manner, (2) ensuring that safe reporting contact centre staff are professionally trained to produce high-quality reports, (3) providing clients with customised service options, (4) assisting clients with awareness and communications initiatives, and (5) continually improving service.


A commitment to independence requires that the service provider remains free from conflicts of interest with their clients, clients’ stakeholders and other service providers. Independence includes two standards that service providers must comply with, namely, (1) identifying, declaring and avoiding conflicts of interest, and (2) operating a self-contained safe reporting contact centre or hosting an independent safe reporting digital platform.


A commitment to protection requires that the service provider respects whistle-blowers’ anonymity, as well as the confidentiality of their information, as applicable and appropriate, to prevent victimisation. Protection includes five standards, namely, (1) ensuring the security of the safe reporting contact centre facility or digital platform in the case of SafeLine-DigEX, (2) ensuring that the location of the safe reporting service provider is discreet, (3) guaranteeing whistle-blowers’ anonymity, (4) assuring the confidentiality of communications received and reports delivered and (5) ensuring that information received through all communication channels is recorded and securely stored.


A commitment to availability requires that the service provider ensures easy and reliable access to the safe reporting facility through a variety of channels, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year. Being available includes the following two standards that service providers must adhere to, namely, (1) guaranteeing the sustainability of the service and ensuring maximum up-time, and (2) providing a choice of user-friendly communication channels 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

How does the assessment work?

Service providers submit a self-assessment document that TEI whistleblowing experts evaluate against the relevant Safeline Standard. This is followed by an on-site visit where the assessor interviews staff, observes operations, and reviews and inspects documentation to determine if the service provider complies with the Standard.

Service providers who adhere to all the norms and standards receive a certificate of compliance, as well as the relevant logo banner from TEI. The certification is valid for one year.

In conclusion

The main reason for employees and other stakeholders in South Africa to refrain from reporting misconduct, is the belief that the organisation will not act[1]. TEI regularly emphasises the importance of acting on all reports through our thought leadership activities, workshops, and presentations. It is, however, for the organisation to decide to heed our advice or not. The first step in the right direction is to have a trustworthy and professional safe reporting service provider that delivers on its promises of maintaining the confidentiality of information and

protecting whistleblowers beyond legal requirements. With our SafeLine Standards we provide assurance in this regard to organisations.


[1] Thüsing, G. and Forst, G. 2016. Whistleblowing Around the World: A Comparative Analysis of Whistleblowing in 23 Countries. In G. Thüsing and G. Forst (Eds.): Whistleblowing. A comparative study (pp. 3 – 32). Switzerland: Springer.


[2] Groenewald, L. and Vorster, P. 2019. The South African Business Ethics Survey 2019. Pretoria: The Ethics Institute. [Online] Available at

Liezl BA Circle

Liezl Groenewald is a Senior Manager: Organisational Ethics Development at The Ethics Institute. She is also the author of the Whistleblowing Management Handbook.

Loyalty: A destructive comfort zone

Loyalty: A destructive comfort zone

By: Leon van Vuuren

Referring to a potential decision on the longevity of the office of the current Public Protector, Ralph Mathekga posed the question as to where the loyalty of the ANC caucus will lie when a decision about this needs to be made in mid-March (News24, 9 March 2021). It turned out that the National Assembly voted to proceed with an inquiry into the incumbent Public Protector’s fitness to hold office.

The journalist referred to two ‘warring’ factions within the ANC and suggested that the faction to which members will pledge their allegiance will determine the outcome of the decision. The subject of construed loyalty, in this case, is a political party. This consideration is dominant. It also reflects a belief that what is good for the ANC is good for the country. Ron Paul’s words come to mind: Why is patriotism thought to be blind loyalty to the government and the politicians who run it, rather than loyalty to the principles of liberty and support for the people? Is the mantra ANC über alles?

Moving beyond loyalty in politics, loyalty could be examined in other contexts. Regarding family – in American movies there is a clear message: family comes first. In terms of groups – the Broederbond, Masons, Opus Dei, Mafia, or Blue Bulls are subjects of loyalty expected as a default for many.

The problem is that in none of these examples, loyalty automatically precludes the undermining of other, perhaps greater values, or harm to others. Ethics may be defined as balancing what is good for the self with what is good for others. The ‘self’ could be an individual, group, organisation, or something larger such as a political party. So, could the ‘other’ be. A presupposition that there should be a sound balance between what is good for the self and what is good for others underlies the definition of ethics. So, if there is a good balance between what is good for me as an individual with what is good for the ANC, Mafia, Steinhoff, or an offspring, is everything hunky-dory, and have I done my duty? The premise of being ethical is to cause no harm. If my loyalty to a person a group or a cause is perceived to be balanced in terms of the good, could there be harm to the ‘other’? Of course, there can.

There is nothing wrong with loyalty as a value per se. When loyalty is blind and causes harm to a subject beyond the immediate beneficiaries, it needs to be questioned. Loyalty is a good value to have. But perhaps it is secondary to some other greater more universal value(s)? Justice for example. Or fairness (to all)? Or liberty as a latecomer to the repertoire of values available to humans?

Blind loyalty distorts reasoning – ‘I will believe in the ability of my leaders who served jail sentences for fraud or corruption to have been rehabilitated and welcome them with festivities when they are released from prison. This leads to the sometimes unconditional belief that perpetrators who had been found guilty and served their sentences are now pardoned unconditionally.

The promise, often empty, of rich rewards for loyalty, abound. The reward for perceived reciprocal loyalty is being part of the in-group that eventually qualifies one to be rewarded. Members of the in-group are direct comrades in the cause but could also include external parties of a formal type – politicians,  regulators and suppliers, or of an informal type – friends, family, secret or open societies and ‘old boys’ clubs.

Rewards take many forms: sweeping ethical lapses under the carpet, often labelling such transgressions as victimless crimes; access to capital and tenders; shareholding; lucrative directorships and managerial positions; access to information such as tender processes; favourable outcomes of tender decisions; and other forms of exclusivity. Upon retirement or other forms of departure, loyalists are rewarded with a golden parachute. In more serious cases there may even be the promise of non-prosecution for crimes and other misdemeanours. Most of these rewards are bestowed without a requirement of counter contributions such as competence or capital.

There are numerous destructive outcomes of blind loyalty. Thus, the dark side of the concept of loyalty.  Outcomes are invariably positive for members of the in-group. In terms of broader moral implications, the net outcome is, however, gross cronyism and nepotism that is often even defended as being morally acceptable. Groupthink as an outcome of distorted loyalty leads to decisions with unethical consequences. Mediocrity is accepted as the norm and incompetence is tolerated. The gist of blind loyalty is that loyalists reserve the right to have a non-exclusive relationship with justice, fairness, and the truth.

The punishment for breaches of loyalty could be mild – laughing it off, token exclusion and some admonishment. Severe forms of punishment for disloyalty could be total exclusion from privileges, ostracization, malicious badmouthing and even death.

Let us be more specific and turn our attention to loyalty to business organisations. In organisations, unchecked loyalty manifests in many different ways that are but contextually different from what was described earlier.  Examples being cutting ‘ethical’ corners and feeling compelled to ignore personal principles and values; being blind to the harm being caused to stakeholders; being motivated by fear and guilt; wanting to please the powers that be; being compensated to the extent that it is experienced as golden handcuffs and being rewarded for mediocrity. Punishment for disloyalty is severe and clearly career limiting.

How do organisations prevent and counter possible blind loyalty? At a broader, strategic level this commences with the conscious and concerted cultivation of an ethical culture. The latter is a collective state of mind within an organisation where legitimate expectations of stakeholders are responded to and where harm is prevented, particularly to contextually vulnerable stakeholders. Irrespective of organisations’ espoused values, establishing such a collective ethical mindset in the organisation needs to be based on ethical values such as justice, objectivity, compassion, trustworthiness, and respect.

These values could easily clash with the pursuit of strategic and work values such as growth, profitability, creativity, and a high work ethic. Such clashes need to be pre-empted and be carefully balanced with the ethical values of the organisation.

At an operational level, the organisation should manage the factors within its control. As a start, basic objective and sound decision-making based on principles of justice and fairness is required. Besides, factions and cliques need to be identified and dissolved or managed. Malicious gossip and rumour-mongering need to be dealt with, as do favouritism and bullying. The consistent and fair application of policies at different levels and in different divisions sends out the right signal. So does swift, decisive and transparent disciplinary processes as applied to ethics transgressors.

Loyalty is a destructive comfort zone. It creates an illusion of security. Absolving employees, in particular, from having to think for themselves is a comfort zone created by blind loyalty. Such a form of loyalty clouds reasoning even when the subject of one’s loyalty has demonstrated a pattern of ethical lapses. Blind loyalty literally blinds one to the actions of others that should logically have been identified as having betrayed our trust. In terms of who’s logic then?

Which individual, group, organisation or society deserves one’s primary loyalty above the rest? That does not really matter though. What is indeed important is not to fall into the abyss created by blind loyalty but to question one’s loyalty continuously. And to question the organisation’s expectations or even demands of loyalty Organisations are not entitled to blind loyalty.

A final word of advice is to heed Mark Twain’s words relating to loyalty to a society: “Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it” and as a general guideline for individuals: “Independence is loyalty to one’s best self and principles, and this is often disloyalty to the general idols and fetishes”.

Leon Circle 3

Prof Leon van Vuuren is Executive Director: Business and Professional Ethics at The Ethics Institute. He holds a Doctorate of Industrial Psychology from the University of Johannesburg.

Why say NO!

By: Dantia Richards

Many professionals preaching positive psychology, have over the years made saying “no” out as a wanton reaction.
“You are not a team player”
“You are lazy.”
“You don’t want to expand your skill-set.”
“You are a goodie-two-shoes.”
“You are a spoilsport.”
“You are a party pooper.”
…and these are some of the nicer ones.

Today, many employees in corporate companies suffer disciplinary action for saying “no”. Many people lose their jobs and friends because of saying “no” – but what if saying “no” is sometimes the most ethical thing to do?

Being ethical means balancing what is good for the self with what is good for others. You would maybe ask me how could saying “no” be an ethical response – especially in the workplace?

In my line of work, I have seen many employees suffer because of always saying “yes”. They say “yes” to such an extent that they overcommit themselves; neglect their families, neglect their health, and deliver half-hearted work. They end up resigning from organisations due to work pressure or are admitted to mental institutions with stress-related causes.

How is this good for either of the parties? Employees suffer because they think they are not allowed to say “no” or wants to impress their employers by always being willing to take on additional responsibilities – and the employer suffers because client deliverables are of sub-standard quality and little value is added to the final service or product delivered to the client.

A different perspective might be an employee saying “yes” for additional tasks because other employees in their organisation fail to take responsibility for their workload. These remain below the radar. They do only the necessary to come by. They fail to plan. They fail to take ownership. They fail to be appreciative of their ability to work, the work itself and has little or no pride in the contribution they can make towards their personal growth as well as the growth of their organisation. They in themselves act unethically and egotistically.

By saying “yes” in this instance, you think you might be helping your colleague, but you are not doing anyone any favours. You are once again over-committing yourself, supporting your colleague in their procrastination and lack of motivation – and prevent them from taking responsibility for their actions – or lack thereof. The outcome of your decision will remain the same. There will be no good for anyone involved.

Yes, we all have our KPIs and work-related responsibilities, and please do not think I am advocating a culture of reluctance to support and assist our colleagues whenever there is a need. I am merely advising you to take cognisance of, and encourage a culture of responsible and ethical decision-making on a very personal level. A culture of mindful consideration for the good of the self and the other.

We are not solely responsible for making the wheels on the bus go round. We are also not responsible to be the safety net for employees who are not rightfully pulling their weight. If saying “no” is the most ethical decision you can make in any given circumstance, then say “no”. Not because you want to be spiteful or you are not in the mood, but because you have weighed the positives and negatives – and thoroughly considered the most ethical outcome of the decision you are about to make.

A friend recently told me about his fifteen-year-old friendship that came to an end, due to his resistance to participate in social gatherings during lock-down. COVID has taught us many things, amongst others, the thorough reflection of how your actions might influence the circumstances of the person next to you. Would you rather say “yes” to attend a social gathering with the hope to save a friendship, or say “no” to this interaction to prevent transferring or contracting a virus that might end you, one of your dear family members, or a friend’s life?

Despite the legal perspective where one was required to say “no”, even more so, should your main thinking pattern not revolve around the ethical outcome of your decision? Being an ethical friend, versus possibly attending a funeral.

Nobody asked us to change the world. Each of us can, however, start by thinking and acting in the best interest of ourselves and of others. That – is the right thing to do – even if means saying “no” to our colleagues or friend at times.



Dantia Richards is the Company Secretary of The Ethics Institute and a Certified Director with the Institute of Directors, Southern Africa.

Bullying in the workplace: pervasive and damaging

By: Lulama Qabaka

When we leave high school many of us all have career paths we would like to follow. For most, the end of matric feels like one is now ready to start that journey. Some are even privileged enough to go to university and upon graduation finally, land a job at a big company. Your dream has finally come true and you are ready to conquer the world. Then suddenly this dream slowly but surely begins to become a personal nightmare. Why does this happen?

In one of my self-reflection moments during this lockdown, I thought that except for sport, current affairs and politics, the most common topic my friends and I frequently talk about is work. Whenever the topic would shift from discussing the best football club “Manchester United” (in case you were wondering) to ‘’how are things at work’’? The mood normally changes from one of engagement to a dull response such as “span ke span” (work is work).

It does not matter in which industry we operate, the pressure to deliver good results and even exceed them can wear heavy on most people. One does not only have to deal with complex deliverables at work but then there are also the no less significant matters of family and ‘adulting’.

I recently spoke to a very promising graduate in the financial sector who dared to disagree with a senior member of the firm he works for. He is from a generation that believes in freedom of speech and expressing one’s opinion. His inputs were, however, not well appreciated by this senior member and his colleagues, and they went out of their way to teach the young man a lesson.

His confidence slowly diminished, and he went from being bubbly and self-assured to becoming an extremely unhappy individual. Eventually had to go into therapy for three months. I am happy to say that he is well on his way again, however, the ending is not always a happy one.

Individuals such as this friend seem to be on a good trajectory to the top of the corporate ladder. This is of course until their careers seem to grind down slowly. The individual’s confidence is often taken away slowly through subtle or overt abuse in the workplace until they lose their mojo.

So, what caused my friend’s unhappiness? In short, he was bullied! The Merriam Webster dictionary defines bullying as “being prone to or characterized by overbearing mistreatment and domination of others”. In high school bullying happens in a straightforward crude manner. However, in the world of work, it presents in a more subtle, even sophisticated, manner. Some of the ways this can occur are by:

  • Being given unclear work instructions,
  • Continued denials of request for time off without a valid reason,
  • Threats, insults, and other forms of abuse,
  • Micromanagement,
  • Excessive criticism and others stealing credit for good work,
  • The accusation of wrongful work, and
  • Undermining of career aspirations or overt refusal of promotion.

The list is not exhaustive, but these are the most common signs that one is being bullied.

Reasons for bullying may vary from an individual needing to assert themselves to remain in control. It may also stem from the individual having personal issues and bringing those issues to work. Of the many reasons the one I would like to focus on is when the bullying is institutionalised. In other words, it has become part of the organisation’s culture – ‘How we do things around here’.

Many organisations have very good values and ethics-based documents that support the values that contribute to the formation of their broad organisational culture, and thus also their ethical culture. Bullying may be an unspoken accepted practice endorsed by the mantra of those with some longevity in the organisation of ‘eat or be eaten!’.

Allowing bullying to manifest in an organisation does not only lead to a toxic culture but also does not allow a positive ethical culture to manifest. It will not matter what type of sound ethical interventions the organisation has implemented, allowing bullying will negate the best of intentions. From an organisational point of view, this may lead to decreased productivity. However, the most important thing is the net impact this form of unethical behaviour may have on employees.

We often underestimate the dynamics that may cause hostility in the workplace. It is also often a fact that it is not readily discussed and exposed. Bullying happens both horizontally and vertically. Also, discrimination can have many bases, two of which may be race or gender. It may sometimes occur between two employees when one party feels threatened or when both are competing for the same promotion.

Workplace bullying does not necessarily begin in the corporate world but can also reflect the society we come from. Those who bully others in the workplace did not necessarily become bullies overnight once they started working, they may have already been bullies at school or became bullies as a result of toxic work environments.

We can define ethics as behaviour that is good for both the self and the other – irrespective of whether the self or other is an individual, a group or the entire organisation. Organisations need to consider how much they lose by not addressing these issues. It would benefit organisations to take a hard look at their ethical culture and assess whether bullying is a cause of a weak ethical culture. Having this knowledge may enable organisations to slowly reverse the situation – and creating a positive environment where employees may thrive.

My emphasis is not on the factors that cause the bullying itself, but most importantly how these affect the employee and the organisation’s continued sustainability. It is often said that the world is a tough environment and if you want to make it, do not expect to be treated like a Teletubby (no offence to Tinky Winky).

There is a growing number of professionals who need or seek help from psychologists or counsellors purely because they are not coping with toxic work environments.

Some of the

effects of workplace bullying include:

  • Depression
  • Sleep disorders
  • High staff turnover
  • Absenteeism
  • Decreased morale and productivity
  • Lack of motivation.

This affects employees’ personal lives and may consequently negatively affect families as well. South Africa’s constitution is based on good values and ethics – in keeping with the spirit of the constitution organisations should endeavour to treat employees with dignity.

Organisations should also ensure that their governing bodies’ ethics committees keep a keen eye on bullying and other forms of unethical conduct. As for their oversight function, such committees need to ask the right questions – what types of unethical behaviour are present, and how are they being dealt with. Is bullying one of these behaviours? What is being done to prevent it and address it if it does occur?

It is important to view employees as the stars of the organisation, and to understand, that their performance depends on how they are being treated. Let us all be proactive in our places of work and reduce the negative effects that bullying has on our employees.


Lulama Qabaka is an Ethics and Anti-Corruption Specialist at The Ethics Institute.

Project Showcase: Crossing borders and boundaries

By: Celia Lourens

Since TEI’s inception in 2000, international funding has been acquired to implement various initiatives to enhance organisational ethics. As the title indicates, this article takes you across the South African border as we share one of our flagship projects in Mozambique. Prof Leon van Vuuren contributed with a lead opinion piece (15 August 2020) titled: “You cannot fight corruption by fighting corruption”. That remains the approach we follow when delivering on the promise of changing business conduct, regardless of the contextual environment. Mozambique is an amazingly beautiful country and a preferred vacation destination for many South Africans. What is happening in this country, beyond the natural beauty and ocean views?

Scandals impacting the economic wellbeing of nations are still making headline news across the globe. A powerful example just beyond our neighbourly border was the nonsensical debt of over $2 billion known as the “Tuna Bond” scandal which headlined globally in 2016 (Elliot, 2018). The Mozambican economy and its people are still suffering the consequence of alleged corrupt bank loans of state-owned firms (Cook, 2019). The complete disregard of value-based business behaviour by corrupt individuals will have Mozambican nationals paying for the indiscretion for years to come.

On the bright side, the discovery of additional natural resources turned the spotlight on the country again, with international extractive industry role players and investors rushing to benefit. This leaves the borders of the country and the conduct of representatives ‘to get part of the pie’ wide open, so one can only hope that international best practice will be considered in the dealings. This discovery will likely increase opportunities for South Africans to get involved, not only given the favourable geographical location, but also the technical skills and abilities of our business sector. This places more emphasis on the need for pursuing a collective discourse on responsible business conduct in Mozambique.

The collective action narrative – a Coalition for Organisational Integrity

The Siemens Integrity Initiative awarded funding late in 2019 to TEI to engage in a second five-year project to advance business integrity in Mozambique. Learning from previous cross-border experiences, working in Angola and Mozambique, the objectives for a collective action initiative and its impact on the business sector remained a priority focal area.

TEI conducted a study in Mozambique in 2016 to identify the drivers of corruption in the country. This study was conducted on behalf of what was previously known as the United Kingdom Department of International Development (UK-DfiD). The research findings served as the foundation for the design of the activities to address the drivers of corruption in a meaningful manner. Considering that when there is a ‘fight against corruption, it fights back’, the approach taken was to rather capacitate individuals and enable them to make better decisions, and to allow them to consider the impact of their actions, so that the change happens from within that ecosystem. With this approach, there has been some progress and movement in adopting value-based principles in the Mozambican business ecosystem.

As part of the current five-year project TEI collaborated with key Mozambican stakeholders to establish a Coalition for Organisational Integrity – or COI for short – that is actively strengthening the narrative on doing business with integrity. Under the umbrella of COI, the focus is mainly to bolster ethics management capacity. In a holistic diagrammatic depiction of the project (see below), the three objectives of the project are each supported by three specifically designed activities.



The first objective reflects the collective action narrative, bringing together business executives representing large and multinational companies in Mozambique, to participate in discourse based on doing business with integrity. The COI offers participants a neutral facilitated platform to share thoughts on topical issues. To elevate capacity advancement and align with the Coalition’s purpose, two best practice sharing sessions were hosted in 2020, with discussions focused on Conflicts of Interests, and Ethics and Compliance.

The offering of leading practice masterclass sessions brings together theoretical and practical experts sharing insights on relevant topics, with accolades from participants on the quality and value of these sessions. A series of three two-hour sessions focused on Codes of Ethics with experts Fatima Rawat (TEI), Hendro Nhavene and Jovita Fazenda (Mozambican Ethics Specialists). The first session was an introduction to Codes of Ethics, followed by Drafting a Code of Ethics and, lastly, the Implementation of a Code of Ethics. Participants who attended all three virtual sessions received a certificate of attendance. The leading practice masterclass series will continue in 2021, so be sure to visit and register if you have an interest in learning more.

As a core element to address the increasing influx of investment by extractive industries in Mozambique, a small working group of apropos representatives are invited to a neutral platform on industry-related concerns and issues. Conducted under Chatham House rules, the working group sessions add valuable perspectives and insights as to the core challenges for companies operating in the sector.

The second objective of building ethics management capacity brings about an opportunity for qualifying Mozambican nationals to attend TEI’s flagship programme, the Ethics Officer Certification Programme (EOCP) as part of the funded benefit. One of the most impactful outcomes to date is that 12 Mozambican nationals are practising as certified Ethics Officers, compared to zero in 2015. This contributes to a systemic change in awareness and increases the impact thereof. Needless to say, it also inspired TEI to be more creative in our thinking on the language medium of this flagship programme. Accordingly, we aspire to pilot the EOCP in Portuguese in Mozambique during 2021. To support the extension of knowledge resources, a Portuguese Codes of Ethics Handbook was made available, a milestone for TEI. Additionally, the first-ever Ethical Culture Maturity Indicator in Portuguese is currently being conducted.

Changing the narrative with no boundaries

A longstanding partner of TEI, Ordem dos Contabilistas e Auditores de Moçambique (OCAM) continues to strengthen ethics management capacity for accountants and auditors and has implemented a Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants. Resulting from the strong relationship between TEI and OCAM, a code of ethics for accountants and auditors in Mozambique was implemented.

The institutionalisation of the code of ethics provided OCAM with the opportunity to become an approved affiliate member of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), whereby OCAM adopted and implemented an International Code of Ethics for Professional Accountants. The impact of this falls under the following legal parameters in Mozambique: “Under Law No. 8/2012, OCAM is responsible for establishing ethical requirements for professional accountants. OCAM issued an internal Resolution which adopted the International Code of Ethics in its entirety as OCAM’s Code of Ethics.” TEI values its engagement with OCAM, particularly with the launch of the OCAM Academy for Excellence in 2020, which offers relevant ethics-related sessions to professionals.

The last objective is a focus on building ethics management capacity within the supply chains of large and multinational companies. With the roll-out of the Ethically Aware Supplier Induction (EASI) programme, TEI celebrates the positive feedback and comments of course participants. The programme was rolled out in 2020 as an online-only programme and will be made available to our Mozambican audiences in Portuguese by mid-April 2021 – visit for more details about this programme and be part of the change. 

Aluta continua – continue the narrative

In conclusion, the borders to South Africa do not limit the work that TEI does, but rather inspire us to do more across the continent for our fellow African people. The business integrity discourse is a critical one to continue, and the identified eagerness for theoretical and practical capacity is astounding. If you are working across borders in Mozambique, please join our efforts and participate to benefit from the project. The struggle continues! (


Williams, D.A. and Isaksen, J., 2016. Corruption and state-backed debts in Mozambique: What can external actors do? U4 Issue.

Elliott, L., 2018. Are we heading for another developing world debt crisis? The Guardian14.

Cook, N., Mozambique: Politics, Economy, and US Relations. Congressional Research Service45817. accessed 18 February 2021. accessed 19 February 2021.



Celia Lourens

Celia Lourens is a Project Manager at The Ethics Institute


COVID has surfaced a lot of good in people

By: Fatima Rawat

Much has been written about the moral ills that have surfaced during COVID-19. From PPE corruption to the theft of food parcels, to the spreading of fake news. This has received so much attention that we can sometimes think the pandemic has shown us to be a bad society. This, however, ignores the overwhelming majority of South Africans who have come out of the pandemic with flying colours and increased levels of empathy.

COVID-19 has tested us on so many levels, as individuals, as families, as communities, and as a society at large. More than ever, it has tested our moral fibre and our sense of how we relate to others. It has challenged us and pushed us out of our comfort zone and made us conscious of the impact we have on each other.

I recently had a conversation with a friend who reflected that pre-COVID she felt she had fulfilled her moral obligations by donating to charity, but COVID has required that she thinks far more about the impact of her actions on others. From respecting lockdown rules to wearing a mask to making a conscious choice that she will take the vaccine when she is eligible, overall, COVID had changed her moral thinking.

And she is not alone. From our health care workers, educators, and those on the frontline, to everyday citizens – all have stretched themselves to do more, within their means, to help others.

We say that ethics is about balancing what is good for the self with what is good for others who are affected by what we do or say. Empathy is about identifying with and understanding the situation that another person is in, their feelings and motives, as well as letting them know that you understand where they are at. By being empathetic we are aware of our connection with others, the communities we live in and the broader society – and we take that into account before we act or make decisions – being mindful of our impact on others. Empathising with others is also good for the self, as it helps people feel less lonely and more connected.

Whilst empathy is considered universally good, the reality is that our lived experience of empathy is affected by so many things. Research has shown that empathy could be affected by various interpersonal and cultural factors and that people are likely to have enhanced empathy for members of their group, above others. The pandemic at its peak has however exposed us all to a common vulnerability, leading us to share our fears and concerns with all of our fellow citizens. For a while, we could relate to each other in previously difficult ways. There was an overwhelming sense of care for others in its broadest sense.

The moral challenge that COVID has placed on each of us as individuals and as organisations is about the extent to which we are considerate of others. The pandemic has sharply heightened our awareness of the disparities in our society. It has increased our sense of what others are experiencing – from illness to the loss of loved ones, unemployment, financial struggles, anxiety, and depression. It has led us to find new ways of reaching out to our fellow citizens and to show empathy, but also to be connected.

The lockdown regulations themselves are strongly rooted in both taking care of ourselves and of the impact that we could have on others – from staying indoors when needed to wear a mask, to practising social distancing. Despite criticism over the nuances of some aspects of the regulations, they have cultivated a strong sense of civic responsibility and a common understanding of our obligation to take care of ourselves first, to do no harm to others, and to do what we can to support other people, especially those who are in need.

The pandemic did not come with a rule book, setting out how we should respond. It has required us as a country, as individuals, and as organisations to adapt quickly and develop responses that are both good for us and others.  It has allowed us to be more understanding of other people, to reach out and open our hearts and minds about what they are experiencing. Not only did this give us a sense of where the other is at, but in doing so we were able to experience social connectedness, which in turn helped us to deal with our feelings of despair or isolation.

We have seen many small acts, such as running errands for a sick neighbour, putting together a care package for a health care worker, or simply enquiring about each other’s health, along with so many other unsolicited wonderful displays of empathy that have added to our connectedness and our humanity.

Organisations too have been grappling with adapting to the new normal, finding creative ways of working that benefit the business whilst trying to ensure that employees are satisfied, productive and engaged whilst working from home. This has required organisations to be curious, to better understand their employees, their work-home circumstances, and how best to make the situation work.

At a time when the risk of employees experiencing disengagement, burnout, anxiety, mental and financial strain is higher than ever before, a culture of connectedness has become most pertinent.

Effective leadership under COVID-19 has required that managers put themselves in their employees’ shoes, lead with empathy and compassion, expressly letting employees know that their health and well-being is cared for, respecting employees’ boundaries when working from home, setting realistic deadlines, and prioritising employee’s health and well-being. By leading with empathy during this time, organisations have been able to build trust and increasing the culture of connectedness.

While not denying that we have seen some who have acted selfishly and advantaged themselves at the expense of others, most South Africans have risen admirably to the COVID challenges – especially on a moral level. The ongoing challenge for humankind would be to deepen that sense of empathy beyond external factors – embedding it in our convictions – resulting in a more ethical and empathic society.

Fatima Rawat is a Senior Ethics Associate at The Ethics Institute

Ethical Leadership Remotely

Ethical leadership – remotely

By Prof. Deon Rossouw

Those who hoped for a speedy return to normality in 2021 – or a return to office – are likely to be deeply disillusioned by now. With the second wave of Covid-19 infections spiking, delays in acquiring and dispensing a vaccine, and rumours of a third wave of infections in the coming winter, many employees are likely to work from home for the foreseeable future.

If all goes according to plan, namely that vaccines will become widely available for the bulk of the adult population and no surprises occur in terms of nasty new variants of the COVID-19 virus, one might expect to see a gradual return to office by the third or fourth quarter of 2021. However, even in this scenario, it has become clear that working from home is not a mere pandemic-related phenomenon, but a permanent feature of the future of work. Employers are thinking differently about office spaces, and about the need for employees to spend 40 hours per week on company premises.

This new remote working dispensation has opened many pitfalls, but also many opportunities. It clearly is neither a blessing nor a burden, but a mix of both. The focus in this article is on the challenges that remote working poses for ethical leadership in organisations.

The fact that ethical leadership in organisations matters is beyond dispute. Unethical leadership not only harms organisations, but often puts them permanently out of business. The recent spectacle of the unravelling of the Trump Presidency once again demonstrated how selfishness and disrespect for truth, people and institutions ultimately result in chaos and conflict. Ethics is the foundation of safe, just, and prosperous communities and organisations.

How though does one ensure that ethical standards prevail in an organisation, when people are not present on company premises, but are working remotely? Some organisations have opted for remote surveillance of staff to overcome this problem, but surveillance can be a very counterproductive way of ensuring that staff abide by standards of acceptable behaviour.

Surveillance signals to staff that leadership do not trust them and is likely to be rewarded with distrust in leaders.

A much more enduring way of ensuring that staff adhere to ethical standards is to ensure that an ethical culture prevails in the organisation, irrespective of where people are working from. Instead of relying on external controls for ensuring adherence to acceptable behaviour, an ethical culture ensures that people abide by ethical standards out of conviction and not because they are externally controlled.

But how do you cultivate an ethical culture when you are not in regular contact with your co-workers – as is the case now for many organisations where a remote working dispensation has become the new normal?

There is a clear link between ethical leadership and the ethical culture that prevails in an organisation. This has been affirmed by scholars in the field of organisational culture, such as Schein who indicated that the most influential factor that determines the culture of an organisation is leadership. The South African Business Ethics Survey 2019 conducted by The Ethics Institute on large and listed companies in South Africa also found that one of the foremost factors that determine the ethical culture of an organisation is leadership commitment to ethics.

The ethical culture of an organisation is thus to a large extent determined by what members of an organisation see and hear from their leaders. It is exactly at this point where remote working can potentially isolate employees from one of the most important cultural forces that shape the ethical culture of an organisation, namely exposure and proximity to leaders.

The challenge for leaders in remote working environments is thus to ensure that members of their organisations receive regular exposure to their leaders. In line with this, leaders need to create more opportunities than before for communicating directly – albeit digitally – with their staff. Staff need to see and hear from their leaders as to why ethics is important, and how ethical standards and behaviour relate to the purpose and mission of the organisation. This is a responsibility that not only resides with executive leaders but should also be shared by leaders on all levels of an organisation.

The credibility of leadership commitment to ethics is, however, directly linked to the way in which an organisation treats its employees. Should there be a discrepancy between the ethical standards professed by leaders, and the way that staff are treated, the ethical commitment of leaders will be seriously questioned.

In the survey mentioned above that was conducted by The Ethics Institute, a clear link was also found between the ethical treatment of staff and the strength of the ethical culture in an organisation. Fair treatment of staff in the said study was described as, “The degree to which the organisation treats its employees with respect, fairness and dignity, and considers employees when making decisions that may affect them”.

The fair treatment of employees in a remote working environment poses new challenges to organisations. It calls for paying far more personal attention to the well-being of staff. The effect of remote working on the mental and physical well-being of people is well documented by now. Although some people relish working from home, many others suffer from isolation, stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, burnout, and other mental health ailments.

In these circumstances, showing concern and care about the personal well-being of staff become a precondition for people to experience and know that they matter to the organisation, and are being treated fairly. In a recent (January 2021) article in the Harvard Business Review, Brian Kropp writes that one of the trends that will distinguish successful organisations in 2021 is their ability to enable employees to live better lives.

Employees can only perform optimally if they are physically and mentally in a good space. Rather than totally outsourcing the responsibility for physical and mental well-being to their staff, smart organisations will take co-responsibility for their well-being instead. Obviously, this responsibility cannot be shouldered by executives alone. Leaders on all levels, but also colleagues can collaborate in creating a culture of connectedness where it is part of the organisation’s culture to care not only about performance and outputs, but also about the health and sanity of the people behind the performance and output that are so essential for every organisation’s success.

Ironically, it is when more than profit and performance matters to organisations that they often enjoy better performance and profits. The link between ethics, positive employee morale and improved performance is a proven one – and one that has become even more important in a remote working environment.



Deon Circle

Prof Deon Rossouw is the CEO of The Ethics Institute and an Extraordinary Professor in Philosophy at Stellenbosch University.