By Akintola Benson Oke
IN the course of my work as 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 are not paying 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 His Excellency, 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 The 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 telephone that he just landed in Lagos!
And there are so many other examples. 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 organizational transformation must begin with a personal commitment within each individual to pursue moral excellence. Abraham Lincoln described as the trees and reputation as the 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 rightsizing; its operating licenses may be withdrawn if managers circumvent corporate governance, and ultimately, the Company is liquidated. In Nigeria, there is no indigenous company that has a life span 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 nation’s tangentially miss out on industrialization. This is the malaise that has characterized 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 maximize profits, they should maintain a good reputation and ethical standards that will not conflict with the goal of profit maximization.
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 organization. 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.