By Akintola Benson Oke
IN the course of my work as the Honourable Commissioner for Lagos State Ministry of Establishments, Training, and Pensions, I have come to appreciate more than ever before, the importance of business and professional ethics for both economic growth and other important aspects of development. In this contribution to the discourse, I wish to call attention to a number of practices, habits, and tendencies that are, in my view, symptomatic of the absence or weakness of business and professional ethics in Nigeria or in the Nigerians who exhibit them with a view to demonstrating how these practices, habits and tendencies hamper our growth as a society.
As has been severally noted, the Nigerian society seems to have some negative practices, habits, and tendencies peculiar to it, this, however, is to the detriment of the country and has given it a bad name in international circles. In these modern times when societies are in search of sustainable development, we may not be able to go far, or putting it mildly, we may be considerably slowed down in our bid to develop. The rest of the world may not be able to wait for us, even if we are ready to wait for ourselves. Examples abound. There is a sense of entitlement which promotes awards and free handouts ahead of earned benefits. The quota system is an example of this. At the core of it, any system that promotes awards and free handouts ahead of earned benefits is symptomatic of a weak or non-existent ethical code. Thus, the quota system has become a bane of our society and its effect on economic growth is that the occupants of strategic and influential positions and offices will be people who were not appointed or selected under a merit-based system.
Tax evasion is another prevalent practice that is symptomatic of weak business and professional ethics. One would be surprised at the large number of so-called influential members of the society and top businessmen who do not pay taxes or are not paying the correct amount of taxes in Nigeria. The effect of this on the revenue of the government and the ability of the government to meet its basic obligations is evident and apparent. Thankfully, many governments, and especially, the Lagos State Government under the administration of Mr. Akinwunmi Ambode, is convincing many by sheer display of prudent management of resources that this attitude towards paying taxes must end. The so-called African Time Syndrome has eaten deep into the fabric of our society. Some events start as late as two hours behind schedule and nobody seems to care. In fact, in some cases, the planners themselves start late because the important guests will not arrive on time. This is symptomatic of a weak code of ethics.
It promotes a lackadaisical attitude towards obligations and many business decisions that other climes will treat as time- sensitive are allowed to slide such that potential partners from other countries are left with an unsavoury opinion of our country. The abuse of religion in Nigeria could also be seen as symptomatic of a weak code of ethics in the business and professional circles. It is not unusual to hear people justify otherwise unacceptable actions under the guise of religion. Some employees leave their work places to attend religious events during work hours. It has been observed that Nigeria can be said to be the most religious country in the world, but it is perhaps the least godly. It is not unusual, for example, for a person who is on his bed in Abuja to lie on phone that he just arrived in Lagos! And many other examples abound.
The corruption in the judiciary and our weak judicial system is another example. For instance, the contents of affidavits are suspect because sometimes they are not sworn before a Commissioner of Oaths! Also, the traffic culture is another embarrassing practice. Many of our people are so undisciplined that they constitute menace on our roads and exacerbate the congestion. Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said, “To behave ethically is to behave in a manner that is consistent with what is generally considered to be right or moral. Ethical behaviour is the bedrock of mutual trust. Ultimately, the quest for organisational transformation must begin with a personal commitment within each individual to pursue moral excellence. Abraham Lincoln described character as a tree and reputation as a shadow. Your character is what you really are; your reputation is what people think of you. Reputation is a function of perception. With respect to the practices and habits listed above as indicative of a weak ethical code, a commentator, Idumange John, illustrated the consequences as follows: “At St. James Gate in Dublin, Ireland, Guinness was manufactured in 1759.
The company has lived for more than two and a half centuries. The underpinning philosophy is business ethics. The longevity and efficiency of companies like UAC, PZ, etc is attributable to business ethics. In any corporation, what happens when top management colludes with suppliers and rigs the invoice regime without following due process of advertising, tendering and bidding? In a manufacturing firm, what happens when workers engage in pilferage, under-declare sales, bribe auditors, manipulate suppliers just for their personal gains?” “The result is simple; the company will incur losses in profitability, efficiency and reputation; its customers diminish because of distrust, there could be layoffs or right-sizing; its operating licences may be withdrawn if managers circumvent corporate governance, and ultimately, the company is liquidated. In Nigeria, there is no indigenous company that has a lifespan of 50 years.
The reason is that in Nigeria, the municipal laws operate within very weak institutions, which can hardly carry the capacity of reforms. When a nation is bereft of corporate governance culture, her tax regime will be weak; there will be high level corruption, corporate impunity will ride roughshod, law enforcers will become law breakers; reforms will be unworkable, inflation and unemployment will run amok and such nations tangentially miss out on industrialisation. This is the malaise that has characterised Nigeria for over four decades.” At the end of the day, business ethics refers to the standards businesses should observe in their dealings over and above compliance with the letters of the law. Business ethics covers issues such as fair dealings with the labour force, customers, suppliers and competitors as well as the impact of business activities on public health and the environment. It implies that whereas businessmen should maximise profits, they should maintain a good reputation and ethical standards that will not conflict with the goal of profit maximisation. Although the business environment in Nigeria can modestly be described as turbulent, uncertain and rigorous, it is constantly changing and in most cases not dynamic enough to adjust to the environment.
I agree that business and professional ethics require of everyone the standards businesses should observe in their dealings over and above all compliance with the law. Thus, ethical players will be concerned with areas such as fair dealing with customers, suppliers, their labour force and competitors. Good business ethics helps to gain and retain business, customers and other clients. There is also the corporate social responsibility aspect of business ethics where business tries to meet the changing needs of people. In an interview with the Vanguard Newspapers, the following question was posed to Seni Adetu, the former CEO of Guinness Nigeria Plc: “How is your organisation structured to cope with the increasing global demands for ethical business practices?” His detailed response is one which I heartily commend to all corporate and professional entities in Nigeria: “We have a Code of Business Conduct and Ethics which applies to everyone working for Diageo (our parent company) worldwide regardless of location, role or level of seniority.
We expect those who work with us and for us to act in accordance with the principles of the Code and relevant policies and standards. The Code sets out our commitment to conducting business in accordance with our purpose and values, all relevant laws and regulations and industry standards. It provides guidance on what is expected of each stakeholder and references other policies and standards. Failure to comply with the Code, policies or standards is treated very seriously and may result in disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal. We have a fully resourced compliance and ethics office whose main responsibilities are the inculcating of our values, Code of Business Conduct and Global Policies in the organisation. They have different strategies that they deploy to ensure that compliance and ethics remains in the front of mind of all employees, because as you may be aware a well-executed ethics and compliance programme can eliminate a significant amount of improper behaviour. We walk the talk in terms of our compliance programme. Within two months of joining the organization employees have a one on one formal compliance and ethics induction.
As a stop gap between when they resume and when they have their induction, a mandatory onboarding is done within seven days of resumption, which is followed by an online Code of Business Conduct training. The formal induction class is a reassurance that the new employees are on the same page with rest of the organisation. The tone at the top is very vital in the effective compliance programme in any organisation; as such we have a line manager capability tool kit which invariably enhances our line managers to respond to the enquiries of their direct reports with agility. We also have an annual ethics and compliance programme tagged “Pathway of Pride” where we as a company dedicate a month to discuss issues bothering on compliance and ethics, including ethical dilemmas that we face every day in the performance/execution of our job roles and responsibilities. The 2014 edition was recently concluded in April 2014. We have 15 global policies which all Diageo companies are expected to comply with. Some of these policies include: Anti money Laundering Policy, Anti-corruption Policy, Anti-discrimination & Human rights policy, Employee Alcohol Policy, Quality Policy, Environmental Health and Safety Policy etc. We also have an annual certification of compliance which is a platform on which employees are tested on their appreciation of our code of business conduct and our global polices.” From my varied experience, it is clear that any business or professional code on ethical conduct must provide for the following: a) Trust:
A firm should recognise customers who want to do business with the company they can trust. Trust is defined as assured reliance on the character, ability, strength and truth of a business.
- b) Integrity: Integrity means wholeness of character by consistency of thoughts, words and actions. Maintaining integrity requires moral courage and fighting your beliefs even when the Chief Executive does not sacrifice principles for expediency.
- c) An Open Mind: In order for a company to improve performance, the leader of an organisation must be receptive to new ideas such as asking for opinions feedback from both customers and seek the collective contribution of members of the organisation. d) Meet obligations: Irrespective of the circumstances a company must do everything to gain the trust of past customers’ and clients, particularly of something that has gone wrong.
A firm must reclaim the lost honour by meeting her commitments and obligations.
- e) Fairness: Corporations tend to be fair in their dealings with all stakeholders. At all times, a company should reappraise her activities related to community-issues and activities by being a good corporate citizen. The firm must stay involved in community development activities.
- f) Have Clear Documents: Re-evaluate all print materials including small business adverts, brochures, fliers and other business documents to make sure they are dear precise and professional.
- g) Maintain Accounting Control: Record keeping is an important component of business ethics. Therefore, a company should take hands on approach to accounting and record keeping. Gaining control of accounting and record keeping curbs any other dubious activities.
- h) Reputation & Morality: Most Companies are built around reputation and the morale of the employees. They avoid words and actions that are capable of undermining respect, and once there is a breach, they take affirmative action to correct such inappropriate action.
- i) Be Respectful: As a good corporate citizen treat clients and customers with utmost respect. Always treat other with professional respect and courtesy.
- j) Commitment to Excellence & Leadership: Many firms now pursue excellence in executing their duties. Ethically sound executives are conscious of their responsibilities and opportunities of their position of leadership and seek to be positive ethical role models by their own conduct.
Finally, it is my view that every business person and professional who is serious about this topic should have the following as his mantra: “I will manage my enterprise with loyalty and care, and I will not advance my personal interest at the expense of my enterprise or society. I will protect the human rights and dignity of all people affected by my enterprise, and I will oppose discrimination and exploitation; I will protect the rights of future generations to advance their standard of living and enjoy a healthy planet.”