The importance of workplace ethics training in South Africa

What is deemed ethical to one person might not be considered ethical to another – but how does one decide who is right? As the modern business environment continues to be plagued by challenges such as corruption, the subject of ethics becomes ever more important. As employees are intimately involved in the workings of a business, it is important that business owners are able to trust them. Providing employees with training around professional ethics is an important way of setting the standard for ethical business practices and the overall integrity of the business.

Lyndy van den Barselaar, Managing Director at ManpowerGroup South Africa states that organisations that support proper workplace ethics consistently show more productivity and employee retention than those that consider corporate ethics merely an issue of compliance. ManpowerGroup was recently named one of the World’s Most Ethical Companies for the sixth consecutive year by Ethisphere, and one of Fortune’s Most Admired Companies.

“As the digital transformation continues to change the way people communicate and share information, more and more information is available around organisations and how they conduct their business. Further, as consumers become more aware of this, they are more driven toward interacting with businesses that support ethical behaviour and business practices. This illustrates that proper business ethics are not only positive internally, but for customer relations too.”

Effective training in this regard is designed to help employees understand their personal obligations and the consequences of ethical violations, for themselves and the business as a whole. “Ethics training is not only about avoiding bribes. Sometimes, something you see as harmless, such as leaving your computer open in a public place or even losing your smartphone at the gym can be seen as unethical – since you may be exposing important, private company information to the public, where it can get into the wrong hands and compromise the business,” explains van den Barselaar.

There is general confusion about the subtle differences between illegal and unethical behaviour. Even though many employees have a sense of right and wrong, many may not fully understand the legal complexities of their workplace enough to identify unethical activities. Therefore, appropriate training helps keep employees involved, informed, and inspired.

“Ethical training is not only for large corporate businesses,” says van den Barselaar. “Multinationals, who operate across different countries can use this training to educate their staff about the different laws and ethical codes across each location, as these are bound to differ. It also clears any confusion by establishing a common ethical base from which all employees operate from. In addition, small businesses and start-ups will benefit from having a team that is routed in the same ethical standpoint, to ensure a common understanding of the business culture, and to proactively avoid potentially unethical situations that may arise as the business grows.”

A recent study conducted by the Ethics Institute of South Africa (2015), found that there is a wide gap between regulations on ethics management, the level and quality of reporting, and the actual implementation and influence on strategic decision-making within the business. Therefore, companies need to assess the adequacy of their ethics management structures and processes regularly, in order to improve their ethics management. By providing employees with adequate training and resources on ethical standards, organisations create a work environment where employees are able to acknowledge and deal with ethical dilemmas in the correct manner.

Says van den Barselaar, “Business owners and management should not assume that all their employees are acting in an ethical manner. Being ethical isn’t simply about doing the right thing, because the definition of righteousness is different in all individuals. Further, being ethical is not the same as following the law. In most cases, the law is derived from ethical standards, however, behaving ethically may require doing more than the law demands.”

The need for workplace ethics training is significant, especially in an evolving marketplace fraught with competition. “The importance of fostering a culture of ethics and transparency at every level of the business cannot be ignored, and by ensuring a business has a common ethical base within its culture, the HR department, line managers, and employees will undoubtedly have an easier and more transparent workplace environment,” concludes van den Barselaar.