Johannesburg - A new study on the behavioural aspects of local business paints a grim picture of strained relations between workers and bosses in corporate South Africa.
Employees do not trust their superiors, the yet to be released Ethics Barometer study by the Gordon Business Institute shows.
This was revealed on Tuesday night at the pre-release of the study which is set to be made public in two weeks time.
The study canvassed opinions from 8000 workers in 15 companies and found that employers were out of touch with the realities of employees.
It surveyed employees in the banking, insurance, financial services, property, retail, mining, and leisure sectors.
It was headed and conceptualised by Rabbi Gideon Pogrund with the aim of influencing business to follow a more ethical approach and to ensure a more sustainable future for business and the country at large.
“We have tried to address the soft underbelly of leadership… In the absence of a metric, conversations about ethics run the risk of becoming vague, fuzzy and amorphis,” said Pogrund.
“It is through measuring ethical performance that you can manage it more effectively. And because the conversations which this instrument enables are rooted in empirical evidence, they have more credibility and as such have the potential for greater influence and impact.
“We hope it can contribute to a shifting of ethics from the periphery to the centre of organisational decision making… which has a way of moving away from a grudge compliance,” he said.
On the question of ethical fitness of organisations - which aims to look closely at what should be happening and what is happening - the treatment of employees was the poorest performer, followed by organisational culture.
By comparison, those surveyed felt the treatment of customers was ethically fit.
“There is an external and internal gap… employees have a more positive view about how their organisations engage with external stakeholders than they do about how organisations engage with employees,” said Pogrund.
Some of the findings showed that workers did not feel free to speak out against wrongdoing because of fear of retaliation, felt promotion practices were not fair, there were double standards on the treatment of workers in the workplace, people were not paid fairly, employees and managers were not honest with each other, people did not take responsibility for their mistakes, people were not treated with respect and bosses did not live up to the values of the company.
“Of all the comments relating to management’s behaviour, only 7% were positive, 20% referred to the abuse of power and 10% referred to being disrespectful of employees. This perhaps has to do with the ‘altitude effect’, which means the higher up you go in an organisation, the likelier you are to have a rosier and to be out of touch,” said Progrund.
The report said 45% of workers complained of at least one type of misconduct in the past two years, with the most common types of misconduct being workplace bullying, discrimination by race and gender, theft of company assets, misuse of company property and bending of rules for business to meet targets.
“Strikingly, only 30% said they had reported it and the two most common reasons for not reporting it was fear of victimization, and because the company won’t take action,” said Progrund.
He said this showed a lack of trust.
Nonkululeko Nyembezi, chairperson of the JSE and chairperson of the board of directors at Business Leadership South Africa, said the issue was how businesses reacted when they were confronted by employees seeking action.
“The first thing is that when someone who is in a senior leadership position is in a position to do something about it, its what they do, because that is what goes around the corridors, its not what we preach, but what we do,” she said.
Busisiwe Mavuso, the chief executive of the BLSA, said there was a clear trust deficit between employees and employers.
“There is a serious trust deficit which exists between leaders and employees in organisations. It is a huge indictment on us as leaders if we really cannot be trusted by our employees… The broader question we need to be answering as business is that what kind of leaders are we, are we even leaders in the true definition of leadership, because if we were, I don’t think we would be sitting with this quagmire we find ourselves with,” she said.
She said more needed to be done to bridge the divide and to foster an environment that would allow people to speak out.
“We also seem to have this herd mentality, and this is where we lack courageous leadership, because if something is reported to me as a leader, I should have the courage to call out my peer because it does not matter if it is happening in my division or not, but because it is happening in my organisation, it paints the entire leadership of the organisation with one brush, especially if as a leader, if I am going to fail to take up some of the issues that are brought to my attention,” she said.
Professor Nicola Kleyn, the Dean of the University of Pretoria’s GIBS, said the harsh realities were that leaders spoke, and workers listened.
“Sadly, we do not live in organisations where there is equality in freedom of expression. Leaders talk, and employees listen. We have to switch that.
“There is also a significant difference between a cult and a healthy culture. Cults function because leaders say what they will be and they paint inspiring visions and people are not encouraged to dissent. We do not want to build cults, so we have to think meaningfully about how we build culture,” she said.