Ignore it, and pay the price

If you don’t yet have a vision statement for your organisation on paper and if you haven’t agreed upon the ethics which apply to your business, do it soon. And never, ever break your own rules.

Ignore it, and  pay the price
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Once we had jostled our way into the building, the railings forced some order on our progress. The queue began to move, zigzag-style, toward the counter. In the enclosed space, the loud noise from outside became deafening. Kids bickering, parents yelling, everyone giving vent to their frustration.

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It was 6.30pm and it had taken us three hours to get this far at the Komatipoort border post after a long weekend in Mozambique.

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Behind the glass-fronted counter, only four officials were ‘operating’. Completely unperturbed by the pressing throng, they were taking their time in processing the passports.

Every now and then, one would walk away from the counter for a few minutes, and return chewing a sweet or drinking a Coke.

As we inched forward, I noticed a large dog-eared Department of Home Affairs notice on the wall:

Vision Statement
To contribute effectively to the development of a safe, secure South Africa where all its people are proud, and value their identity and citizenship.

Mission Statement

The efficient determination and safeguarding of the identity and status of citizens and regulation of migration to ensure security, promote development and fulfil our international obligations.

Value Statement

The Staff are committed to being: people-centred and caring; patriotic and fighting corruption; professional and having integrity; accountable and transparent; efficient and innovative.

Now, I’m a great advocate of debating, developing and documenting a Vision, Mission and Value statement.

Developing a shared future (vision), agreeing what needs to be done to get there (mission) and setting the business rules (values and ethics) is an extremely important process for any organisation, no matter how small.

It develops understanding between team members, and gets everyone focused on the same objective. If you haven’t produced these statements or something similar in your organisation get moving and do it.

But it’s not a once-off exercise. It needs regular review and frequent repetition to keep everyone on track.

The exercise also flounders unless followed by a discussion of what you can and cannot do in getting the job done. In other words, you need a code of conduct, a list of what’s expected from all concerned.

The SA government cannot be faulted in the development of these various statements and codes. Our Constitution, hailed as one of the world’s best, deals with these concepts exhaustively. They are also covered in detail in a number of other laws.

Following my Komatipoort experience of the huge disconnect between stated staff values and implementation, I discovered that, in 1997, the Public Service Commission had issued a code of conduct setting out what type of ethical behaviour was expected of public servants. It is comprehensive and includes all the right words, many of them more than once. Words such as faithful, honour, co-operative, polite, helpful, accessible, dignified, fair, professional, effective, efficient, punctual, competent, honest, accountable, honours confidentiality.

But – and here’s the point – all the lofty statements, all the codes, all the notices posted on office walls broadcasting the noble objectives and ethics to which the organisation aspires, are rendered useless when employees ignore them with impunity, and much, much worse, when the bosses themselves ignore them.

If this is allowed to happen, you’re on a slippery slope to failure.

The warning signs have been there for a long time in government, but make no mistake, it’s not an affliction that only affects the state. There are skeletons in the cupboards of many large, established private sector companies, which in some cases have resulted in the demise of these businesses.

Ethics are the bricks with which integrity is built, and integrity is what delivers trust. As you know, without trust, the achievement of success is impossible.

And remember, being ethical is not the same as following the law. Not all laws are ethical. The slavery laws of yesteryear and the apartheid laws of the past are obvious examples.

That’s why it’s so necessary for you to discuss and agree the ethical rules applicable to you and your organisation.

The simplest test to decide whether something is ethical or not is the age-old test of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’!

This article was originally published in the 9 May 2014 issue of Farmers Weekly.