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By Janine Erasmus

Part two of our private sector anti-corruption series profiles a one-woman company that works in the private and public spheres to strengthen ethical cultures in the workplace. Cynthia Schoeman believes that in South Africa there is a growing sense of the importance of a strong ethical culture.

Compliance with anti-corruption regulations is a good thing, but doing business in an ethical manner is as important. So says Schoeman, who in 2010 established Ethics Monitoring and Management Services, an organisation that helps businesses to measure, manage and improve their ethics in the workplace. Schoeman is no stranger to the concept – she’s lectured in leadership at Wits Business School for years, has an MBA from that institution, has worked in ethics since the latter half of the 1990s, and is about to have her second book on the subject, titled Ethics Can, published.

Ethics in this context refers to the set of business policies and practices regarding potentially tricky issues, such as corporate governance, insider trading, use of intellectual property, bribery, discrimination, and corporate social responsibility. Acting in an ethical way involves distinguishing between right and wrong, and then making the right choice.

An analysis of research conducted in 2006 by Business Against Crime for the National Anti-Corruption Forum examined the extent of corruption in the private sector – among other findings, it established that almost 79% of surveyed businesses found that corruption occurred because of a poor ethical culture within the South African business community.

“There is a competitive advantage in good ethics,” said Willem Punt, group ethics officer at FirstRand and one of the panellists at the recent business colloquium hosted by Gibs and Corruption Watch. “Our problem is not writing more laws,” he said at the event. “You do need good regulation and good regulators, but the key issue is really around the character and qualities, technically and ethically, of our leaders on various levels.”

Education was key for the foundational building of good institutions that had good leaders, he added – but it would take major interventions of educating business practitioners about good ethics to turn around current practices.

Schoeman provides exactly that level of education. Ethics is a business imperative, she believes, and her business model is based on this belief – that any organisation needs to include both a good ethical culture and compliance with the rules. The two concepts depend on and complement each other, and the second will flow naturally from the first.

Building ethics in the workplace

“You should have a focus on reducing misconduct, but you should have an equal focus on good ethics,” says Schoeman. “This will build positive behaviour and equally aim to minimise negative behaviour.”

Her company is wholly dedicated to helping companies to achieve this balance in the workplace. She runs it on her own and designs the interventions herself, but has set up a network of associates who help her with other functions, such as analysing survey results or reviewing existing policies.

“My clients are all shades of good,” she says. “They come to me, from both the public and private sectors, saying they need to get their code of conduct up to speed, or they don’t have a good ethics framework, or they want elearning modules so that everyone can benefit,” she says. “They are mostly private, but to an increasing degree, are state-owned companies – not pure government.”

In this line of work, Schoeman sees a side of South African business that is not generally recognised or appreciated. “I see the guys who want to make a difference. The vast majority of my work is about designing proactive ethics management systems, creating the awareness and the knowledge.”

While there have been scandals in the public and private sectors, Schoeman says that there are greater numbers of companies that call her in to help them ensure that their hands are clean. “I have a far deeper insight into wonderful pockets of excellence, public and private, where ethical leadership just is the norm.”

Companies can schedule presentations, workshops and training with Ethics Monitoring, but they can get going immediately by simply visiting the ethics monitor online. This unique tool, developed by Schoeman, helps organisations to get a benchmark on their ethical status, identify its strengths and weaknesses, and work on it through measuring, monitoring, managing and reporting.

In the late 1990s, there were endless methodologies, tools and frameworks for performance management or process engineering, but no practical support for ethics. This was the origin of the ethics monitor. “So you know where to act and while you’re taking focused action, you maintain a strength or address a weakness.”

Bragging about ethical behaviour

Schoeman has a long-term business goal to use this instrument in a way that will, she hopes, swing the attention of the public and the press towards the state of the business world as she sees it. “This perception of corruption is a negative cloud, so how do we deal with it? We can continually work to reduce it, but I come back to my dual purpose of reducing misconduct and increasing ethical conduct. If we could have an ethics score – just as we have an empowerment or a green score – we can brag about the top ethical companies in this country. This could be a tool to emphasise the positive space – it doesn’t make the rest disappear, but at least one could look at it in a more balanced way. At the moment we’re just hearing about the negative.”

Having worked in the field of ethics for years, she feels there is a genuine opportunity for this type of initiative, and Schoeman envisages the data she gathers as the foundation for such a brag list. “Creating a national ethics index – whereby we rate any workplace, whether a municipality or private sector organisation – could create a positive focus. There’s a very real space for that. And the press would snap it up.”

Having an ethics score would give more insight into the company – it would reveal that it looks after its people, for instance, because the ethics monitor takes the employees’ perspective into account. “The benefit of being on such a list for the organisation, from a reputation and credibility aspect, locally and internationally, is huge. Through showcasing the positive, this would influence behaviour just as effectively as the scandals in the newspapers do,” Schoeman maintains. “It would shine the most valuable light on all that’s good in South African workplaces.”

Read part one

Read part three