With business and society facing unprecedented stress levels during the Covid-19 pandemic, we believe ethical leadership and building trust have never been more important.

Business can and should be a force for good. The purpose of the GIBS Centre for Business Ethics (CfBE) is to explore and influence how South African business can respond more ethically to the country’s challenges, facilitating open conversations that build trust and helping to secure a more successful, sustainable future both for the business community and the country.

Since establishing the CfBE (previously the Ethics and Governance Think Tank) in 2016, we have made significant progress in our engagement with practice. We believe that ethics should not be seen merely as an ‘add-on’ to commercial activities but rather belonging to their very heart. So we have worked to help move ethics from the periphery to the centre of organisational decision-making.

More recently, our focus has broadened to include a commitment to a more substantial scholarly contribution. It was partly for this reason that the Think Tank was converted into an official centre of the University of Pretoria in January 2021. Our objective is to develop rigorous thought leadership which has impact and influence.

Three academics are playing crucial roles in helping the CfBE fulfil this objective. Professor Mollie Painter, a distinguished business ethics scholar, joined GIBS as an extraordinary professor and the CfBE as its part-time academic director; Professor Kerrin Myres is co-leading several CfBE projects, and Dr. Tess Onaji-Benson has been appointed research manager. The CfBE has embarked on several research-based projects, and we have created a pipeline of academic outputs, including scholarly papers, whitepapers and case studies.

The pièce de résistance

The GIBS Ethics Barometer for South African business is the CfBE’s flagship project. The Ethics Barometer uses a research tool developed by three Harvard Business School scholars and has adapted it to ensure relevance to South Africa’s issues and challenges. Business Leadership South Africa has been a strategic partner in the development of this initiative.

When the Ethics Barometer was launched in 2019, we aimed to provide a comprehensive benchmark of South African business ethics and ensure that many companies participated. To date, almost 30 leading companies have taken part, and we have collected quantitative and qualitative data from more than 25,000 employees. These companies are from the banking, insurance, mining, property, professional services, retail and leisure sectors.

We have planned to turn the Ethics Barometer into a longitudinal study, making it possible to compare companies’ results over time. Some companies have already participated for a second time, enabling them to measure progress and the impact of practical interventions introduced in response to their first set of results.

Extending the Ethics Barometer

We have also converted the Ethics Barometer into a 360-degree assessment, surveying external stakeholders, including customers, suppliers and shareholders. By comparing external stakeholder perceptions of how they are treated with employee perceptions of how those stakeholders are treated, the instrument’s value has been enhanced.

In partnership with the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants (SAICA), the Ethics Barometer has been applied to the accounting profession, surveying the three groups in their ‘pipeline’: students, trainees and professional members. We aim to better understand the similarities and differences between these groups and discern patterns over time. The findings will be used to support and assist SAICA’s integrated ethics plan, addressing the need to restore reputation and trust in the profession.

During the first phase of the Ethics Barometer, our focus was exclusively on big business. Working with Allan Gray’s empowerment company, E Squared, the Ethics Barometer was subsequently extended to the small, medium and micro enterprises (SMME) sector. Given this sector’s role in promoting entrepreneurship and transformation, we hope that the results – especially relating to the treatment of SMMEs by large corporations – will help spark a national conversation.

Conversation and collaboration

Drawing on the CfBE’s ability to build partnerships across divides, a key activity has been convening and facilitating dialogue sessions between senior leaders from business, the government, trade unions, churches, NGOs, academia and the media. This has been done in partnership with renowned human rights activist, Bishop Paul Verryn.

The dialogue sessions have focused on the toughest and most contentious issues facing South African business and society: corruption and state capture; poverty and inequality; racial and gender justice; economic and political inclusion; and violence and abuse. The purpose is to generate new thinking and expose participants to perspectives and views they might not otherwise encounter. It is also intended to build trust and understanding – an antidote to the dangerous polarisation threatening South Africa. Since Covid, we continued to hold dialogue sessions, albeit fewer than in previous years.

We build collaborative relationships with leading international scholars and institutions. This is both to learn and share and to access cutting-edge thinking from across the world while ensuring that innovative work in South Africa travels beyond our borders. Given that South Africa’s challenges are a microcosm of global challenges, we believe that the country offers insights and lessons relevant around the world.

Several eminent international scholars have agreed to join the CfBE’s Community of Fellows, including Professor Patricia Werhane (De Paul University and Darden Business School); Professor Daniel Hjorth (Copenhagen Business School); Professor James Walsh (University of Michigan); Professor Nien-hê Hsieh (Harvard Business School); Professor Philip Nichols (Wharton School of Business); and Professor Marianna Fotaki (University of Warwick).

We have worked with Harvard Business School on a case about SA Taxi’s BB-BEE deal with Santaco. The case focuses on general lessons about economic inclusion and correcting historical wrongs and will be taught to all Harvard MBA students.

In addition, we delivered a presentation for an Academy of Management webinar, Contemporary perspectives on racial justice, attended by management scholars worldwide.

Another example of internationalisation was a research project about whistleblowing, developed in partnership with the UK’s Nottingham Business School and funded by a UK government grant. The project has a range of outputs, including a scholarly paper, a whitepaper and a course, ‘Giving Voice to Values’, based on Professor Mary Gentile’s work. Our work received significant media coverage through interviews and articles, and we hosted webinars with well-known whistleblowers, Suzanne Daniels (Eskom), Cynthia Stimpel (SAA), Brian Currin (‘Gupta Leaks’), and Mandy Wiener, the author of The Whistleblowers.

We co-create ethical solutions to challenging business problems by connecting academia, business, and society both locally and internationally. As a recent example, we convened and facilitated workshops between Standard Bank managers and business ethicists and public health experts from the universities of Harvard, Vienna and Warwick. The output was a decision-making framework to address the legal, ethical and operational issues associated with the Covid-19 vaccine roll-out.

Over the next few months, with so much on the boil, we plan to steer our existing projects to their successful completion. But we are also in the process of launching bold new ones. We are working on engaging with businesses at Constitution Hill and how the constitution’s values can influence their purposes, roles, and activities. Another project, in partnership with Hollard, will address how corporate South Africa can more effectively combat the scourge of gender-based violence.

Given the plethora of ethical challenges and opportunities in South Africa, there is much work to be done. The CfBE looks forward to continuing to make an innovative and significant contribution to business and our country. 

KEY TAKEAWAYS

  • The GIBS Centre for Business Ethics (CfBE) explores and influences how South African businesses can respond more ethically to the country’s challenges.
  • The GIBS Ethics Barometer, which seeks to provide a comprehensive South African business ethics benchmark, remains the CfBE’s flagship project.
  • In 2021 the Ethics Barometer was applied to the accounting profession, working in partnership with the South African Institute of Chartered Accountants.
  • In association with E Squared, the Ethics Barometer has also been extended to the small, medium and micro enterprises sector.  

…ethics should not be seen merely as an ‘add-on’ to commercial activities but rather belonging to their very heart.  

Rabbi Gideon Pogrund 
Rabbi Gideon Pogrund is the founding director of the GIBS Centre for Business Ethics. He works closely with senior business, government and civil society leaders. He conceptualised and established the GIBS Ethics Barometer for South African business, and consults with leading corporations. He has contributed articles and been interviewed in a range of media outlets, and he has been invited to speak at a number of international thought leadership forums. He has an MA from Cambridge University and he is pursuing a PhD through publication at GIBS.

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