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Are you part of the “Acceptable Theft”?

May 18, 2020

In recent weeks since the lockdown, there has been much talk from different quarters regarding several issues ranging from conspiracy theories to corruption. At first, my natural curiosity drove me to follow some conversation threads which sometimes gave an interesting perspective but nothing more.

Gradually though, the posts became argumentative and then degenerated into personal attacks, pinning suspicious allegations on people and blame for matters that are all from Allah Azwajaal.

Having made a commitment to myself for Ramadan, I made a concerted effort to not partake in any of the posts but this proved much more difficult than I thought it would be as social media is very much a part of my life due to my work.

Whilst posting on a WhatsApp group, I read a text that spoke of the corruption within the government and members of political parties, particularly, the ruling party. Soon this was followed by posts which cast aspersions on members of the medical fraternity involved in research and advising the government on issues on the COVID-19 pandemic. This gave me pause for thought.

“Beware of suspicion, for suspicion is the greatest falsehood. Do not try to find fault with one another, do not spy on one another, do not vie with one another, do not envy one another, do not be angry with one another, do not turn away from one another, and be servants of Allah, brothers to one another, as you have been enjoined…”

Many are of us point fingers at the rampant corruption we hear about on television or read about in the newspapers or that is rammed down our throats on every social media platform known to man. But have we looked at the corruption meted out by ourselves daily which we have come to normalise? I think I read somewhere that one could call it “acceptable theft.”

Some years ago, in a training session, the facilitator made mention of a scenario that happened in the principal’s office after a father was called to the school as his son had stolen a pen from a classmate. The conversation went something like this:

“Son, why did you do this? Why did you take something that didn’t belong to you?” asked the father.
As the conversation continued, the father then said; “Son, why didn’t you tell me, I could have taken a pen at work and brought it for you?”

Shocked? The father was correct to reprimand his son for the theft he had committed, but he had just made the unacceptable behaviour acceptable by showing that there are ways to get around the system.

Let us look at another example which we accept as policy within the business environment.

An HR manager was shocked by the advice she was not given by the accountant. She was told to change the remuneration policy to ensure that an individual who did not qualify for a bonus that year would get one.

On inquiring why, she was told to change the policy, the accountant explained that if the request was “within policy,” paying the undeserving employee a bonus was acceptable. So, the policy was changed to make something abnormal, normal.  And do you realise what that means? If somehow, someone else in the company came across this anomaly and asked for an audit trail, they would clearly find one. The policy made it acceptable.

Another example is the issue of salaries.

Board members will often fight hard not to pay bonuses to their staff but go on to justify why their own bosses should be paid.

But it is not just boards that manipulate the salary situation.

How often have you heard a colleague utter words like: “My boss likes me; I can never underperform” or a staff member openly admitting that he/she received a bonus far bigger than he deserved because he knew how to make his boss happy. This is another great example of a bonus being paid when it was not actually earned. But, you guessed it, because there was a clear policy, a detailed document trail and the performance assessment process was followed to the letter, no one could dispute the ‘theft’.

I hope you’re starting to see the problem here.

Even if it’s clear that we are stealing from an organisation, if there’s a process that you can motivate for, no one views this behaviour as corrupt. And this, once again, makes it acceptable.

Let us delve a little deeper.

You receive a call from a close family member who tells you that he or another family member has been struggling to obtain employment. Your instinct is to help so you start drafting a job description tailor-made for the person. You follow all the necessary steps and channels and sometimes these are by-passed. You ensure that you have your back covered in case the connection is uncovered or you are questioned. Once again, corruption and lack of ethical behaviour have just been normalised.

You meet an old friend and whilst catching up he tells you about his business and you promise to give him some work. Of course, you make slight changes to the procurement documents to ensure that they stand up to scrutiny and everything is in order, right? Yes sure, but once again, you have simply made ‘corruption’ acceptable by making sure that the paper trail looks like policy was followed. And you sleep soundly at night and since no one is hurt or none the wiser, it is acceptable.

Amazing how we never reflect on OUR own actions, but we are quick to reflect on the actions of others or how good we are at telling others when they are wrong but rarely reflect on whether what we are doing is right or wrong.

How easy it is to talk about corruption and see ourselves as advocates for a world without it or other unethical behaviour when daily you fail to look inward?

There cannot be one set of standards for ourselves and a different set for others.

A wise man once told me that the nafs is an empty vessel that can be good or bad depending on what we fill it up with. Meaning, everyone has potential to be better regardless of where they are.

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