The skyline of Sandton, an affluent suburb of Johannesburg in Gauteng, South Africa, at dusk. Picture: 123RF/MARK ATKINS
The skyline of Sandton, an affluent suburb of Johannesburg in Gauteng, South Africa, at dusk. Picture: 123RF/MARK ATKINS

Few will deny that an enormous fire of corruption and unethical behaviour is raging through corporate SA, one that threatens to destroy many companies, careers and livelihoods and shatter our already fragile economy.

Just as our natural instinct is to run from fire, many have, understandably, distanced themselves from companies alleged to have been involved in wrongdoing. Since the revelations at the Nugent commission last year of Bain’s involvement in the weakening of the SA Revenue Service (Sars), the management consultancy has experienced an exodus. Advisers have parted ways with the firm, but most costly has been the departure of clients. Within just a few months, Bain’s business in SA suffered severely.

This is the cost of involvement in corporate wrongdoing, whether intentional or not. So, while it appears many are running from Bain, why would someone who vigorously espouses corporate ethics choose to join them?

I’ve asked this question of other executives who have gone into a business after or during a scandal, and their answers are often similar: the hope that they can contribute to making the bad situation right. This is my answer too, but the target of my efforts at a remedied outcome is not only Bain but the broad set of parties affected by Bain’s actions at Sars. I find myself in a unique position to bring about such an outcome.

From September to December 2018 I was contracted by Bain to provide my opinion on the investigation of its work delivered at Sars from  2015, and Bain’s subsequent response once that work was deemed inadequate. This culminated in a detailed report that I shared with the Nugent commission, which referenced my role and report in its final submission to the president. In my report I drew on my corporate ethics and management consulting knowledge to outline what I believed Bain ought to do to remedy the bad situation to which they had contributed.

At the beginning of 2019 Bain asked me to develop these ideas into a remedy plan to instal safeguards to prevent repeats of what transpired at Sars and also, importantly, to make amends to those parties that were affected. Unsurprisingly, the remedy plan was developed following the six-step remedial process I first outlined in Business Day on February 19 2019 and have described at events organised by the Ethics Institute, the Good Governance Academy and the Graduate School of Business at UCT.

I then faced the choice of which path to follow to bring about the change I wanted to see. I believe we’re at an inflection point in SA and global capitalism, a point at which business has to seriously rethink its role in society and where society needs to rethink how it will hold business accountable. Addressing these issues has been my focus in recent years and continues to be my mission.

So, I had to decide whether I’d be most effective as an adviser and external commentator, or if I went into the business to drive the implementation of the plan that I had developed. I wrestled with this decision but drew courage from others who have followed similar routes and I decided I could have the greatest effect in advancing corporate ethical responsibility from inside business. How else do we rehabilitate businesses if none of us supposedly ethical people are willing to go where the need is most acute?

The reality is that making amends for harms is not a perfect science. I have discovered that even leaders with the best intentions struggle to figure out the best path. Rather than vague apologies and actions, remedy requires, as far as is practical, specific actions to fix specific harms for specific affected parties. But this is not always straightforward. With one foot in academia and the other in management consulting, I hope to be able to develop and deliver tools to businesses to fill this gap.

Civil society must continue its intolerance of unethical business practices, but business leaders must not wait for external sanction to act. Bain has committed itself to a path of remedy and change in its service to SA. Time will tell how effective this will be and whether public trust is regained. What I do know is that Bain’s leadership — locally and globally — is committed to this path. I hope many more businesses will start to proactively develop and implement remedy plans for current and past harms caused. Our people, and our country, deserve nothing less.

As for me, I have indeed run towards the fire when all logic dictates that I should be going in the opposite direction. But if we are to see rehabilitation of flawed business and remedy of harms caused, I believe some of us need to get off the sidelines and get stuck into the game. Hopefully more will do this as we reform our business sector.

• Williams is a senior lecturer at the Allan Gray Centre for Values-Based Leadership at UCT and a partner in Bain & Company’s Johannesburg office, where he leads the local corporate responsibility practice.