Servest's Lungile Langa on HR’s role in driving ethical leadership

Lungile says HR can drive ethical behaviour by protecting whistleblowers.

Lungile Langa, HR director at Servest, says that corruption and wrongdoing often seep into organisations because a lot of people look away or do not raise the alarm when they encounter concerning activities.

She emphasises that “as an HR professional, your voice is important and if you don’t raise a concern as soon as you are aware of something out of place, it raises questions about your credibility and in the long-term, can negatively impact the integrity of your organisation.”

Lungile notes that a lapse in ethical judgement happens both in the public and private sector. Cases of transgressions from companies such as KPMG and Steinhoff illustrate that unethical behaviour cannot be restricted to any one sector. Cases have illustrated that, whenever misconduct is uncovered, the fallout can be considerable given the breach of trust with stakeholders. The damage to an organisation’s reputation can be difficult to repair.

Bureaucracy the culprit

Lungile notes that in the private sector, speed is often a priority, so approving budgets and signing off spend in the private sector is tied down with less bureaucracy. She notes, however, that in public entities, there tends to be a much longer, more cumbersome procurement process.

“For example, when selecting vendors, you undergo a tender process that involves a panel. There are also checks and balances in the private sector, but ethics can be compromised by the need for speed. The risk in that arena arises when you have an HR professional with no integrity bending the rules at expense of the company,” she says.

In the public sector, cases of ethical transgression have evoked anger and demands for accountability. Public Service and Administration Minister Senzo Mchunu recently established the Public Administration Ethics, Integrity and Disciplinary Technical Assistance Unit, which will conduct ethics profiles on all employees in the public administration.

The unit was created to support and provide technical assistance for the management of ethics, integrity and disciplinary matters relating to misconduct in the public administration; develop norms and standards for the above; build capacity around the disciplining of misconduct; strengthen oversight of ethics, integrity and discipline; and to intervene in cases where systemic weaknesses are identified; promote ethics and integrity and cooperate with other institutions and organs of state.

The Minister indicated that precautionary suspensions related to unethical behaviour stood at 444 cases on 31 December 2018.

Sometimes a matter of self-preservation

Reflecting on cases where HR professionals allowed unethical activities to take place in the workplace, Lungile suggests that, when it comes to things like irregular appointments, HR’s choice to turn a blind eye can be a move of self-preservation. “In these instances, HR casts aside their conviction in favour of going along or wanting to please the CEO or COO. This can happen when the HR professional is invested in avoiding any confrontation or maintaining the peace by not being firm or pushing back on unethical behaviour.”

She says it is important for HR to set boundaries, especially in issues that fall in their scope of responsibility. “Even if line management controls the budget, you must understand that you are an expert in employee behaviour and competencies, and should not defer a decision as pivotal as hiring, without expressing your professional opinion. You must ensure that your advice is taken seriously, and not succumb to pressure from above to go with certain decisions that are wrong.”

Strong leaders are required

Lungile adds that HR professionals can sometimes be too focused on keeping the peace. That said, they do need to take up their rightful place and prioritise doing the right thing over pleasing others.

“You have to realise that, if you don’t put your views forward, your passivity can compromise the entire organisation.”

The role of whistle-blowers in exposing wrongdoing has come to the fore in many of the prominent cases presented at the Zondo Commission and beyond. High-profile cases have ranged from questionable recruitment to wrongful dismissal at organisations such as SAA and SABC after whistle-blowers stepped forward to expose activities and HR has a key role in protecting them.

“As the keepers of culture,” says Lungile, “HR practitioners should lead the charge in creating an environment where staff have safe avenues for reporting wrongdoing.” This includes setting up channels or facilities that enable employees to reliably make safe disclosures of unethical conduct.

Protect whistleblowers

According to the South African Board for People Practices, HR should take the lead when it comes to whistleblowing, especially in cases where there is a reluctance to investigate. Some of the foot-dragging is based on internal politics and bias, for example when a high performer or senior executive is implicated.

HR needs to ensure that those involved in an investigation are able to act impartially so as to not compromise the investigation process. Additionally, they should ensure that investigative practices do not breach ethical and legal requirements and continually monitor the investigation for signs of blind adherence to initial assumptions which may have been inaccurate as they were of necessity based on incomplete evidence and preconceived theories.

Workplace whistleblowers can rely on the protection afforded by the South African Protected Disclosures Act (PDA), and the Whistleblowers Act, provided that they made a protected disclosure.

The act encourages employees to raise alarm where they are aware of criminal or other irregular conduct in the workplace, whether this is in the public or private sector. It seeks to create a culture of disclosure of information on unlawful or wrongful conduct by providing protection against reprisals. The aim is to eradicate criminal and irregular conduct by organs of the state and private bodies.

HR needs to ensure that whistleblowing is also reflected in the organisation’s policies and ensure implementation of Protected Disclosures Act, which states that employers should authorise appropriate internal procedures for receiving and dealing with information about improprieties, and take reasonable steps to bring the internal procedures to the attention of every employee and worker.

Integrity is instilled from the top

In terms of whether integrity is inherent or learned, Lungile says some people are naturally inclined to view the world a certain way, or they can be taught as they progress in life. “In HR, everything we do leans on integrity; in this field if you don’t have honour you won’t last. As a leader in this role, you are expected to set the tone for the rest of the organisation. You have to be an example, walk the walk, safeguard the integrity of the organisation and make sure that policies and issues of discipline are upheld.”

Codes of corporate governance (such as King IV), the Company’s Act and similar around the world are putting ethics management at the top of the leadership agenda, Lungile adds that accountability circles back to you as an HR leader. “You are ultimately responsible for providing procedures and guidelines for discipline in the organisation., which can make you unpopular, but is part and parcel of the job,” says Lungile

Embedding ethics and integrity in the formal sense requires a concerted effort which entails having a strong code of ethics in place which sets professional standards and expectations of behaviour for everyone in the organisation. Additionally, ethical conduct has to be led from the top.

Lungile emphasises that setting standards and creating a culture where ethics are respected depends not only on the leaders of the organisation but also on the reputation and standing of the HR professionals in the organisation.

“Ideally, you want your organisation to view HR as a critical function. In some organisations, HR is still perceived only as a support function, rather than a strategic partner. A highly respected HR office is often hard-wearing and therefore the professionals in that division have to be empowered to act on behaviours that don’t meet the organisation’s ethical standards.”