Marking a milestone: 100 programmes over 14 years, 881 certified ethics officers

by Prof Leon van Vuuren | Published on 25 September 2018 for The Ethics Institute monthly newsletter

The Ethics Institute (TEI) began offering the ethics officer certification programme (EOCP) in 2004, with the very first intake of just five attendees. During August 2018, 14 years later, we presented the EOCP for the 100th time. The EOCP is an intensive five-day in-class programme where attendees are taken through a comprehensive curriculum which is now in its fourth generation, and which is tailored for private-sector and public-sector groups. Our entire team of subject matter experts, including associates of the institute, is involved in teaching the various modules. Attendees then have 90 days to complete a practicum assignment in which they must demonstrate their ability to apply what they have learned to a real organisation. Those who achieve the required mark are certified as ethics officers and each is assigned a unique ‘EO’ number.

100 EOCPs

To date, TEI has trained 1592 individuals on the EOCP, of whom 881 have been formally certified as ethics officers. Considering the growth in the number of people who enrol for the programme each year, there is clearly a demand in business and government for the competencies that ethics officers can offer. Much of this growth is owed to regulatory developments in both sectors that require organisations to ‘manage’ ethics, coupled with a growing awareness of the need for organisational ethics following a series of highly public scandals.

Yet the questions must be asked: Have our ethics officers met the expectations of organisations that invest in salaries for people who do this job? Are they fulfilling their mandates of ensuring that ethical cultures are being established in the organisations that employ them? In other words, are we making a real difference, or farting in the wind?

Although we can point to significant momentum, and acknowledge this very positive milestone, it is clear that there is much work still to be done. Although good intentions abound, there are opposing forces that form barriers to the growth and sustainability of the ethics officer occupation:

  • Firstly, some organisations that have experienced ethical failures already had ethics officers in their employ, and some even had established ethics functions or ethics offices.
  • Secondly, the appointment of ethics officers is often a reaction to an ethical lapse, or based on fear of non-compliance, rather than a proactive intervention to build ethical cultures.
  • Thirdly, though much lip service is paid to ‘good governance’, most for-profit organisations still subscribe to the shareholder-first model where ethical due diligence is viewed as a ball-and-chain that could ‘hold us back’.
  • Fourthly, because ethics is one of the ‘soft’ sciences – filled with warm and fuzzy words such as integrity, fairness, honesty and respect – it is often underfunded and underutilised.
  • In the fifth place, the e-word (ethics) has a somewhat mystic character that makes people reluctant to say it out loud, or to engage with it substantively, even when there are ethics officers in the organisational system that could contribute meaningfully. This of course reinforces the belief that people are either ethical or they are not and there is not much one can do about it.
  • In the sixth place, organisations often cop out of their responsibility to manage ethics by fusing ethics with compliance, whether as the name of a function or as perception. After all, it is much easier to tick boxes to indicate having obeyed rules, than it is to apply one’s mind to challenges that rules do not provide for, or to acknowledge that the rules themselves sometimes do not contribute much to the building of ethical cultures.
  • And lastly, leadership cadres in organisations are often laws unto their own, and this makes them sceptical of the need to actually ‘manage’ ethics. There are also those charismatic leaders who are such skilful manipulators that they steer conversations away from ethics with seeming reluctance, faking a serious facial expression or even openly sniggering at its presence as ‘the last item on today’s agenda’.

Having said all that, much ground can be gained just be recognising the connectedness of the ethics cause to other people and other organisational functions. Indeed, there are a number of role-players who can influence the destiny of the ethics officer occupation for the better, and thus improve the sustainability and impact thereof. In other words, ethics officers should be aware that they have allies both inside their organisation and out, and they need to harness the energies of these allies to ensure the evolvement and growth of the occupation. Although the 880-odd individuals who are certified as ethics officers can muster some energy to influence their contexts, they cannot do this alone.

At TEI, we will continue to pour our energy into training and building awareness, further adding to the pool of potential allies for ethics officers to tap into in furthering the organisational ethics cause. So, while we are proud of this milestone, we are committed to striving for real impact in South African organisations, and recognise that this will require a joint effort from a host of enabling partners beyond just the ethics officer.

Leon Circle 3


Prof Leon van Vurren is Executive Director: Business and Professional Ethics at The Ethics Institute. He holds a Doctorate of Industrial Psychology from the University of Johannesburg.