There is a serious lack of business ethics in many businesses in South Africa. While I would like to say it is limited to small business it is unfortunately not the case and there are many examples where it is common, even in major corporate organisations where it may be more skilfully camouflaged. What possibly makes this worse is that many of these companies are perceived to be reputable and are seen to be above reproach, even proudly displaying in their reception halls for all to see, a list of corporate company values that in many cases are just a figment of some ones imagination. They may even employ a large number of people to run a call centre to respond to customer complaints which tends to make them look squeaky clean. In reality they may well be paying lip service to customer care while behind the scenes it is the last thing on their agenda. The truth is, in many cases they are less than honest or can even be plain dishonest.

Ethics, or a lack of ethics comes in many forms but it is all directly related to greed and bottom line profits. What people fail to appreciate is that you will eventually get caught out and your Company will suffer as a result. If you are very large you must suffer a market share disadvantage at some stage as the word will spread from person to person that things are not always what they appear to be. While pure fantasy on television, those of you who watch Isidingo and the antics of Barker Haines, could be forgiven for thinking this could never happen in real life. Well the bad news is it does happen all the time all around us on a daily basis.

People may start off small by taking short cuts and attempting to cut costs or just by exaggerated advertising and before you know it they are selling one product to the customer while attempting to convince him it is something totally different. What is just as bad is hiding something that is really seriously wrong with a product and then knowingly passing it off as goods that are 100% perfect. We all know it happens. The danger is as people grow they become greedy and as their Company becomes more powerful some become more corrupt. As they say, power corrupts but absolute power corrupts absolutely.

One only has to look at the totally exaggerated advertising on television to get just a small taste of the level some companies will stoop to in order to mislead their customers and increase their sales.
Without needing to site actual examples we are all aware of many totally unfounded claims made in television and other commercials about various products that just do not do what they are reported to do. Many of these claims are so outrageous it is almost a joke, but is it and how many people are actually conned through all this hype and deception into making a purchase they later regret and where does it all end? Sure we have the Advertising Complaints Authority, who are supposed to be the advertising watch dogs but how effective are they really? Just a glance at my TV set suggests to me they are either failing dismally or else people are just not using them enough.

Unethical practice does not just happen in the manufacturing industry, it is just a prevalent in the service industry and in fact every industry you can think of.

In this article we examine some of the forms of unethical business activity going on and look at the advantages of running genuinely reputable and ethical operations. The disturbing message throughout this investigation is that as ethics in our society diminish it becomes harder and harder for ethical businesses to survive as the playing fields are no longer level. There really is a need for us, the public to stand up and be counted and refuse to accept unethical activity in any way, shape or form. It must be stamped out if in fact we are to survive in the long term.

What is ethics and what constitutes a lack of ethics.
Definitions and different types.

Misleading advertising.
Failure to deliver on promises.
Racketeering on price and serious over pricing.
Selling goods which cannot do what they were designed to do.
Making totally false claims.
Endangering the public. Example: – lead in toys above safe limit.
Example: – Sudan red in food, a known poison and carcinogen.
Failure to act on information that could endanger public safety.
Bribery, kick-backs and corruption.
Knowingly fail to deliver value for money.

Being ripped off these days is in fact so common practice most of us have conditioned ourselves to just accept it and laugh it off. Sure we may well not go back and do business with that company again, but that is as far as we take it other than telling a few friends of the unpleasant incident.

Below are some of the headings I envisage using as actual examples I have experienced or got to know about. Obviously no specific company or names will be used, only the circumstances.

Examples of known unethical behaviour:-

1. In the motor manufacturing industry. (Faulty or unsafe cars).
2. In the food industry. (Hygiene).
3. In the banking industry. (Overcharging on bank charges).
4. In the tourist industry. (Charter boat ride Cape Town Harbour).
5. In the entertainment industry. (Children safety Theme parks etc.).
6. In the airline industry. (Technical safety USA).
7. In the travel industry. ( Misleading advertising designed to con the public)
8. In the building industry. ( houses built below spec to save money)
9. In the retail industry-shops. (rampant overcharging in some shops)
10. In pharmaceutical industry. (Selling habit forming drugs without keeping a register).
11. In the medical profession. (Charging medical aid and patient).
12. In the weight loss industry. (Total lies and hype about ridiculous claims that are clearly impossible).

So what can we do?

What can be done to stop these unethical practices?

If we as the general public continue to accept poor standards and low levels of integrity from the people we do business with nothing is ever going to change. We as consumers need to become much more aware of what is going on around us and be far less trusting.

I recall as a teenager my father walking into a restaurant and asking the manager if he could inspect the kitchen before we sat down for a meal there. He wanted to check the level of hygiene. These are the lengths we need to go to today. Some unethical owners would argue, why waste money on cleaning materials to keep your kitchen clean if the general public never see inside there. As such he cuts his overhead costs and increases his profits. So what if a few customers end up in hospital with food poisoning nobody could ever prove it was his fault.

What are the advantages of running an ethical business?

There can be no doubt that running a business along totally ethical lines with high integrity and business principals will eventually bring with it the rewards. In time you will build up a reputation and this must pay off in the long run. Sure you will have to weather the storm and accept that you are not operating on a level playing field while you patiently wait for the rogues to get caught out and it can sometimes be frustrating and time consuming. Trust me I know.

What Action Should you take as a consumer?

First of all know your rights. Just because you have purchased an item that does not have a seller or manufacturer warranty does not mean you have no rights or recourse. Every single item you buy must by law be capable of performing the task for which it was originally designed and intended. If this is not the case you have legal recourse through common law. Now while I fully appreciate you would not wish to go running to your lawyer and run up huge legal expenses every time you purchased a R10 item that did not work, there is still much you can do about it. The lengths you go to in order to receive compensation and satisfaction will obviously depend on the value of the goods purchased.

Shops are not doing you a big favour when they offer to replace faulty goods or make a refund; they are merely abiding by the law of the land. The larger and more reputable shops and stores often have a customer services department to facilitate customer refunds or exchanges. The smaller ones should at least offer this service also if they are truly reputable. If they refuse you should at the very least immediately cease doing business with them and then tell as many people as possible of their refusal to help you. Other action you could take includes reporting them to the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa and/or reporting them to the shopping centre management if they are in a large shopping mall. If you are really angry you could even try writing a letter to the media and asking them to publish it in the papers. Now while this last course of action will admittedly not get you your goods replaced it will warn others not to be caught out and it will hurt the culprit offering you some degree of satisfaction and revenge.

South African consumers need to start a zero tolerance campaign against unethical business and eventually we may be able to stamp it out. Far too many people become rich in this Country just by cheating other innocent people.

My wife and I have made it a rule that we will never just accept shoddy merchandise that we have paid for and not do anything about it.


  1. Gregory

    What business ethics? The ANC is a shining example of how to be ethical :-)

  2. collette

    Excellent Dad! I agree with everything you have mentioned and the logic behind it all! So true and that Business Ethics should be better in this Country!

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