Ethical behaviour may not deliver easily measurable profits, but the costs of not being ethical can be devastating. This emerged during a webinar hosted by the Institute of Information Technology Professionals South Africa (IITPSA) Social and Ethics Committee.
The webinar, the first in a series of webinars to be staged on the topic of ethical behaviour, explored the definitions of ethics and why ethical behaviour is critical for business and society as a whole.
Josine Overdevest, founder and MD of 21st century educator coaching organisation Flying Cows of Jozi, non-executive director of the IITPSA and chairperson of the IITPSA Social and Ethics Committee, noted: “All technology design, development and implementation has a huge impact on stakeholders, and society as a whole, therefore the IITPSA Social and Ethics committee believes it is important for all IT professionals to understand how to behave as an ethical IT professional.”
Organisational ethics expert Dr. Paul Vorster from The Ethics Institute said it would be a mistake to regard the topic of ethics as a ‘soft’ or boring issue. “It has a lot of implications for how we operate. Ethics has become a buzzword; professions are prioritising it because they have had major ethical scandals. One of the hardest hit has been the audit and accounting profession: fraud and corruption has seriously damaged the profession’s reputation and has even caused a drop in the uptake of new students studying for the profession. It has a warning for the IT sector – people who design systems and software need to think about the architecture of these systems and uphold ethics, or there could be dire consequences,” he warned.
Dr Vorster said: “If you think ethics is a soft issue, you haven’t read a newspaper. Ethical failures can sink organisations and harm them and their stakeholders. The business case for ethics is to avoid risks such as scandal, fraud and corruption, client alienation, high staff turnover, financial penalties and legal liability. The benefits of being ethical include enhanced reputation, stakeholder trust, client loyalty, staff morale, sustainability and a high performing organisation. Does it pay to be ethical is difficult to answer, so one should rather ask ‘what is the cost of unethical behaviour?’”
Ethical and legal are not the same, he explained. “Ethics or morality are well founded standards of right and wrong that prescribe what we ought to do in social interactions (or normative theories). However, ethics is a constant dynamic force: for example, changing and more permissive rules around the use of marijuana. The law is influenced by ethics, but the law and ethics are not the same thing. What is legal can sometimes be unethical. Ethics is not a rule, a law or a religion, it is how we reason as a species and cooperate.”
He noted that the prescripts of society are also not always right when it comes to defining what is ethical. “The acid test is how we treat the other and cooperate,” he said. “Ethics encompasses fairness and cooperation, mutualism and dynamic social processes, which are not static. We also need context to define what is ethically right or wrong. At the heart of ethics is the idea of the self and the other – me or my organisation, and the other person or organisation. We have to balance what is good for ourselves with what is good for the other. The good comes from what you do as an organisation or institution, to deliver on your mandate and add to the economy. From this stems the convictions – the things that organisations care about deeply. From that stems the aspirational values, rules and policies, and also the informal conduct within the organisation.”
Dr Vorster said codes of ethics were important to help people and organisations to define and apply ethics effectively.
For IITPSA members, these principles amount to: contribute to society and human wellbeing, avoid harm, be honest and trustworthy, be fair and take action not to discriminate, respect the work required to produce new ideas, inventions, creative works and computing artifacts, respect privacy, honour confidentiality, and not seek personal advantage to the detriment of the Institute, and actively seek to enhance the image of the Institute.