Are we our own worst enemy?

April 2024 Editor's Choice

We are quick to blame and shame, but slow to evaluate where we are at fault and where we can contribute to improve. We also tend to ignore the impact of our actions or faults, but rather concentrate on the actions and faults of others. Some of our actions impact the way the next generation and the generations after that act. It is the small things that make a huge difference. The law is there for all to follow and not to comply to selectively. Often, those who select which laws they are willing to follow are those who complain and blame the most.

There are so many areas in the workplace and our private lives where we can improve. This article will touch on different topics to highlight various examples.

South Africa has more than its fair share of criminal activities, and we first want to blame the authorities. Yes, we probably have the ‘best’ criminals, but it is time to out-think them. It is not reasonable to expect the authorities to protect every citizen from criminal activities all the time. The prisons are already overfull, and this did not happen by itself. We need to prevent crime and not only insist on arrests. We need to evaluate how we, as individuals and organisations, can contribute to creating a better South Africa.

Sonja de Klerk.

During my career at SAPS, we encountered various examples of how we can be our own worst enemies.

Often, we do something ordinary, but do not think of the opportunity it creates. There was a burglary at a warehouse without any signs of break-in and entry. The supervisor could not understand how this was possible. Well, it was easy. The locks used to lock the warehouse were left open during the day. Clever criminals noticed this trend and purchased locks of the same size and brand. They replaced the locks during the day. At the end of the working day, the warehouse was locked, with the criminals’ replacement locks. The criminals opened the warehouse during the night with their own keys. After clearing out the warehouse, the original locks were replaced. The following day, the supervisor opened the warehouse with his keys to find an empty warehouse. Criminals one, supervisor none. I have often noticed this trend, including at a major supermarket group.

The role of management

Management is often seen as a position where you can delegate and distance yourself from some responsibilities, and such a manager is very quick to attack the employees. Maybe it is time to examine ourselves and evaluate why certain employees act a certain way. We realised one day that one of the employees stopped completing a very important register at the workplace. The completion of the register was not optional; it was there to protect the workplace and, more importantly, the employee. This specific register also played a prominent role in the judicial system of the cases. When he was asked why he stopped completing the register, his answer was that no one checked the register, and therefore, he believed it was not important.

There are two things wrong with this picture. Firstly, he was obviously not informed of the purpose of the register, and secondly, it highlighted that his manager was not doing his work, as ‘what is checked, gets done’.

Another example is that we will notice something which will raise an alarm, but we do not necessarily act on it, or choose to turn a blind eye, because it is ‘not in my job description’. I passed a laboratory at my workplace on my way to meetings and noticed a ladder standing against one of the walls for a couple of days. Every time I passed it, I made a mental note to follow up, but, on my return, I would not notice the ladder as my back was towards the specific wall. One day, I had time to stop on my way to a meeting to follow up on why the ladder was against the wall for many weeks. The response was that the contractor that was supposed to fix the air conditioner just refilled the air conditioner with gas every time it was reported as not working. This was done a couple of times over a few weeks, so he decided to leave the ladder there.

The problem is that the air conditioner is still not working, and a contractor gets paid each time they perform the incorrect service without fixing the air conditioner, and nobody is addressing the problem. The ladder just stayed against the wall and became part of the furniture. This may seem to be petty, but it costs money, impacts production in the workplace, and reflects a ‘do not care attitude’ from a contractor who gets paid to provide a professional service. This contractor is not doing this to one client but many. Why? Because he is getting away with it.

How many times do we see, but not recognise ‘the ladder against the wall’? If we are only willing to do what is on our job description, we must not be surprised that we are not trusted with more and higher post levels. We did not show that we could outperform the current job description. If you only do what you did yesterday, you will only get the pay of yesterday. The reference to the ‘ladder to the wall’ became a tongue-in-the-cheek reference for years thereafter among some of my colleagues.

I noticed more than once at my local supermarket that, while I was in the supermarket, an alarm would go off in the shop. I know that the alarm is activated when a door at the back of the store is opened unauthorised. None of the managers on the floor would even look up from their work or investigate. This happened every time I shopped at this supermarket. The alarm is just background music to the management. The alarm was installed for a specific reason and must therefore be acted on, or alternatively deactivated if the initial purpose became void.

Recruiting correctly

Recruiting new employees is tedious and costs organisations a lot of money; we often want to finish this exercise as soon as possible. It does not take long before we realise not all newly appointed employees perform as expected and specifically not in line with what has been reflected on their application or CV. Even worse, a discrepancy surfaces. The recruitment process is very important and should never be rushed.

The reality is that many people are looking for a job and often become very ‘professional’ at interviews. They are more than familiar with the various interview techniques. It can be fruitful to embark on some practical evaluations that test the ability of the candidate to perform the required tasks or demonstrate their listed capabilities. An entry-level post that requires attention to detail can be tested with a simple test involving finding the differences between two pictures. It is surprising how many cannot perform this practical test within a reasonable timeframe.

The advantage of practical tests is that most of the time, the tests can be completed by more than one candidate at the same time. For posts that are demanding, it is important that the candidate understands what the post entails and that the advertised salary is not the only thing they notice. The appointment of a candidate who does not understand the extent of the responsibilities of the post is unfair to the candidate and the organisation. Both will suffer. The appointment of a candidate declares the candidate is suitable for the post as the organisation was supposed to embark on a recruitment process to effectively evaluate all candidates for the purpose of appointing a suitable candidate who can perform the expected duties in a reasonable time, with the necessary training.

Suitable candidates are not necessarily immediately fully operational in their posts, even with post-graduate qualifications. An official internal induction and training programme will equip employees to perform the duties as expected but, more importantly, provide them with confidence. Such a programme is applicable to all post levels and will also protect the employer.

Too often in my career, I have noticed the lack of training of employees who are expected to present expert testimony in a court of law. It must be clear that the expert witness belongs in the witness stand, just by the way they act and are dressed. Even the first time an expert witness provides testimony in court, the expertise of the member must be clear, and the process in court must be understood. An employee can be very good at performing their duties, but is not able to successfully present the results in court. There is much more to it than just reading your affidavit and answering some questions.

Dress code, body language, words not to use, and overall conduct are very important aspects that contribute to success in court. The court process is not kind and requires some confidence from the expert witnesses. Again, a practical mock court can provide the employee with an idea of what is expected in court. Going the extra mile at the beginning of an employee’s career will pay off and create an environment where the investment in the employee adds value to the organisation and creates confidence.

When it comes to recruitment and specifically the qualifications of candidates, it seems South Africa does not learn from previous mistakes. I recently asked a friend to show me his degree that I could see what the document reflects. I was disappointed to note that it looks almost the same as years ago. The qualification reflects the serial number of the document, which is an improvement, but it would assist the employer more if the ID of the student is also included on the document... Any name or identification change would have to be supported with an official document as a record. The employer must be able to perform a preliminary audit before they need to request a background check on the qualification. Does the information on the qualifications and training records match the ID of the employee or are there discrepancies?

Furthermore, it is concerning to realise that graduated employees are not necessarily equipped to handle their own finances. How is this possible? If they are not money-wise upon completion of school and their tertiary qualification, it is too late. Fewer people will be financially independent at the age of 65.

Quality management and personnel improvement

The workplace provides many challenges, and companies often handle them informally. There are so many advantages to following a documented quality management system, which organisations or departments seldom recognise. One of the major advantages is the requirement of an investigation when a problem, incident or risk has been identified. I saw this as a ‘stop sign’, which forced us to halt, investigate and improve. It is something you will not necessarily take time to do, and most of the time, it is seen as a reason to discipline someone in the process. It should not be the primary aim of an investigation.

Almost all the time, if such an investigation is done properly, room for improvement is identified in more than one area. Organisations and departments that are under the illusion that no problems or room for improvement exist, have more problems than they realise. Having records of these investigations in place provides proof that checks and balances are there and ensures that matters of concern are addressed using the necessary records. It is also important to understand that often, planned audits and inspections are done vertically, while an incident requires a horizontal audit or inspection, which, most of the time, is more effective in highlighting problem areas.

I was recently shocked to experience that a legal and a financial office did not understand the importance of complete and correct records. The relevant service I requested from these offices involved records that needed to be submitted to SARS and would form part of an estate. These offices even revealed that the information in the records was incorrect, although all the information provided had been correct. They even expected me to pay for the service delivered on an invoice that included incorrect information. Apart from the integrity of the records, what happened to quality control and work ethics? Are these institutions not offices that are supposed to be ultra-sensitive and an example to follow on the matter of the integrity of records?

I am not referring to Micky Mouse companies. Therefore, it is not a surprise that millions of rand in fraud take place in South Africa and are only identified years later. A prominent judge recently officially stated that the lack of integrity in records leads to officials failing to account. The judge further stated that organisations and departments undermine the effectiveness of record management. This statement was supposed to be out there years ago.

At SAPS, we often questioned what was reported in the media. The reports that concerned us the most were the value reported on criminal activities. Are we not making crime very attractive for criminals? Even more of a concern are those cases where the win for the criminal, against the cost of the crime, the cost of bail, and the sentence, do not add up at all. Let us go for it; it is absolutely worth the risk — that is what is advertised.

Think of the future

Does the average person understand the impact of a criminal record on their life? A criminal record stays with them for the rest of their lives. You need to declare whether you have a criminal record with every job application.

The one split-second decision when the action seems to be ‘cool’, ‘funny’, or ‘nothing will happen’ may impact you for the rest of your life. Today, records are linked and accessible, and you cannot hide a criminal record. Does the average person understand the legal process, how long the process is and the cost of a court case? Every day, there is an article and complaint in the news on a case that takes forever. Just notice the time frames reflected in these news bulletins. Often it is a straightforward case.

The process is not kind to the victim, suspect, or their families. The media will concentrate on the more negative version and will not spare you at all. These articles will cling for life to your name. It can take years, during which time, your life is basically placed on hold. I spent my share of time in courts and outside courtrooms while presenting expert testimony on the cases I analysed at the Forensic Science Laboratory. Take my word for it: those benches at the court are very hard and not kind to your backside after a few hours. This alone should be a deterrent.

Your friends who dare you to commit a crime are not taking on the criminal record on your behalf. It is all yours to carry for the rest of your life. The time you decide you do not have time to stop at a red robot may cost you many wasted hours (more than the initial few minutes) in court. Your ID number is linked to the criminal record. Our children should be made aware of the process and the implications for their future.

Back to basics: set a baseline

Maybe it is time we consider these issues and adjust to improve. It is time we go back to the basics. Back to basics usually starts with us. Evaluate our own actions, values and conduct. Stand back and see yourself and your conduct through the eyes of your co-workers and your children. Do you want them to follow the example you set? Do you want your children to skip red robots while talking on their phones? Often, parents are surprised at their children’s actions, but never think twice about the example they set for their children from a very young age.

If it is your own company, would you appreciate such conduct and examples from your employees? Only a small infringement can create a baseline that it is acceptable not to comply with rules, laws and regulations. Let us set a sound and honest baseline. Let us ensure the definition of consequences is clear to our families and at the workplace. The next generation is already active on the baseline we set, and the chances are very good that they will set the same baseline for their children.

The trend among some South Africans is to be very selective about which laws and rules they are willing to obey. This is noticed when you just make an effort to check the vehicle licences of the cars parked in a parking lot. It will only take a few cars before you identify a vehicle with an expired licence disk. Some expired years ago. The question is, why are these vehicles still allowed to use our roads? Are these drivers not the ones to complain about the potholes on every possible platform with photos and videos? The number of traffic regulations violated by drivers in the first few kilometres of a drive in South Africa is of real concern. Even more so when the driver is a mom with her children in the car (an example she set for the next generation of drivers?) or a driver of public transport.

The small steps to improvement may only pay off later, but that is what we need. We need steps towards creating values and integrity for the next generation to follow. We need respect for all people, the environment, and the law, which are there to secure law and order and for our safety.

We cannot be our own worst enemies and then be surprised by what happens around us. Let us all reflect and adjust to improve. Let us make better mistakes tomorrow.

About Sonja de Klerk

Sonja de Klerk retired from the SAPS Forensic Science Laboratory as a Brigadier. She provides expert advice on CCTV management to secure the images as evidence. She presents training courses on CCTV Management for the images to be presented in court, Forensic Evidence typical to expect as part of criminal activities, Expert Testimony in court and the importance of Traceable Records. Her expertise is also available for independent audits or evaluations and consultation on traceability of your organisation's records. She can be contacted at +27 82 778 9249 or at [email protected]

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