Friday 22 August 2008

Criminal complicity?

There’s a thin line between criminality and complicity.

I’ve been working recently with an organisation that, for reasons that will be obvious, I cannot name. The objective has been fairly broad and rather ambitious. They want to become more productive, more efficient and to have happier customers. Very sensibly they have recognised that to do this they have to very carefully examine the way in which they do things. They are going through all of their internal procedures, adjusting them, improving them and every so often, abandoning them.

One of their key problems is that they often overpay their staff. Sometimes they fail to pay their staff at all. Sometimes they continue to pay their staff for ages after they leave. They’ve been known to continue paying staff who have resigned or who they’ve fired, even staff who are dead and buried.

As part of the review I was recently in a meeting with one of their managers and we were discussing our concerns about the level of mistakes and even fraud that were behind these overpayments. I suggested that everyone in the organisation had a responsibility to look out for mistakes and fraud. He disagreed. He said “I’m not an auditor, you know!”

He’s wrong. Everyone who works is an auditor. Everyone in a company has a responsibility to prevent fraud.

If I see a woman being raped outside my office is it acceptable for me to say to myself “I’m not a policeman, you know”, ignore the crime and carry on surfing the web? No, of course not.

So why is it acceptable for people to remain quiet if they realise that there is fraud in their company? Why is it acceptable if they realise that potential profits of a company, which is perhaps next year’s pay rise, are disappearing?

Ask yourself this. If you’re walking round a supermarket and you spot someone taking items from the shelves and hiding them in their pockets, what should you do? What’s the right thing to do? Should you walk away, ignore it and think to yourself “I’m not a cop, you know?” No, I don’t think you should. I think we all have a moral obligation to help stamp out crime. I also think that it’s a form of what Adam Smith described as “enlightened self-interest”. If I can help a store cut down on shoplifting then I can help them keep their prices down because remember that stores will just increase their prices so they can recover the money they lose to theft. I might even be helping to save myself some money.

I’d go further. I think that if we don’t help to stop crime when we know it is happening then we are complicit in that crime. If I know that there is fraud in a certain organisation and I don’t alert someone in authority in that organisation then I’m helping it to happen. If I don’t alert the police to a crime then I’m partially to blame for it not being stopped. If I don’t tell the store about the shoplifter then I’m actually helping him or her to commit a crime.

Of course I’m not in the same category as the fraudster, the rapist or the shoplifter but my crime is one of omission, not commission. You can help a criminal by not doing something as well as by directly helping him. We are, you could say, all auditors, all policemen and women and we’re all guardians of our national security and safety.

So why do we, as a community, allow stolen goods to be openly sold and do nothing about it? We all know by now that certain cellphone stores are selling stolen phones. We know this, we really do. We know those cellphone stores are selling what are politely called “grey imports” that are often in fact second hand but are being sold as new. We all know that a particular store at Molapo Crossing is selling illegal, pirated copies of blockbuster films. Yes, of course we know they’re pirated, half of them haven’t been released yet. When we watch them they have oriental subtitles, the film quality is awful and the sound is dreadful. We know they are illegal and by continuing to buy them we are complicit in crime. By not calling the police and the City Council we are helping criminals to do their sordid business.

I’d go further still. I would say that by not going out of their way to find these crooks, our law enforcement agencies are also complicit. We all know who the crooks are, surely the authorities must know too? Are they perhaps so removed from real life that they don’t know what’s going on? Perhaps they just can’t be bothered?

I’ve tried very hard to think of a way to link this issue to Democracy but I’ve failed. However I think that tolerance of crime is the direct opposite of Development, Dignity and Discipline. Do we want to be seen as supporters of crime or a nation that upholds The Law?

You can judge a country not by it’s government, it’s culture or it’s history. You can judge a country by the nature of it’s people. I wonder whether we want to be seen as a nation of decent, law-abiding good citizens or a nation of criminal accomplices?

No comments: