Lawful not necessarily ethical

It is time for each of us to do some introspection

By Andró Griessel


There is a saying that goes, “A fish always rots from its head”. What is meant by this, is that when a company has a bad culture, you can almost always trace it back to the leader of that company and how he conducts himself. It is usually because of this leader that the party, company, sports team, country, committee, or any other group that needs a leader, never reaches their full potential, or has a positive influence on society.

My article today does not necessarily deal with the blatantly criminal scoundrels who plunder everywhere they go, but rather with the great majority of self-righteous, educated, mostly law-abiding citizens who would at any given stage refer to themselves as model citizens, but for whom the lines between what is legal and what is ethical has become dismally blurred.

Maybe it is because of my age that I have become more aggravated with the topic over time, or maybe it is due to my increasing awareness of how important (and valuable) it is to do business in an ethical manner, that has resulted in my grievances over firms that are just complying with the (often very low) legal hurdles, but completely falling short of the (usually much higher) ethical behaviour hurdle.

If the reader feels that this sounds like philosophical chatter and needs more context, please allow me to provide some examples of recent first-hand experiences.

The law and ethics

But firstly, let’s just consider the difference between the law and ethics. The law dictates what you are allowed and not allowed to do, according to the reigning law of that country and/or an agreed-upon contract.

An example of something that is illegal, but (in my opinion) not unethical, is when you drive 80km/h in a double lane 60km/h zone.

An example of something legal, but unethical, is when you are married outside of community of property without the accrual system, where your spouse is fully financially dependent on you, then if you get divorced, you throw him/her to the proverbial wolves, just because you are legally able to do so.

Back to two actual examples which highlight this even further.

You must perform complicated calculations to decipher the changes to get to a point where you can make an informed decision. This company, which always sends emails and never sends documents via ordinary post, decides to post these letters with a due date by which an answer must be provided. A default option is presented in the letter which will be the accepted one if the due date is missed.

Upon analysing the three options, it turns out that the default option is the least beneficial for the client. Did the company break any laws with this conduct? No. Did the company act ethically in the best interest of its clients? Unequivocally not.

The limited nature of the earmarked area, the significant percentage of sales commission that is withheld by the agency and the resulting financial pressure that she must operate under, forced her to resign and seek greener pastures at another agency.

The principal of the previous agency decided to impose a restraint of trade of six months within a 15km radius around the central business district, which includes where her home and per implication her son’s school is, as well the new agency for which she wants to work for.

If you consider the practical implications of this restraint of trade, this business leader is taking a decision that will provide little to no protection to his company (as he is only protecting his existing estate agents against one out of hundreds of other agents for six months). His decision however becomes a fight for survival for my friend, who now possibly has to make a desperate decision that might change the course of her life.

Did this “leader” act illegally or even out of the ordinary? No, my friend signed an agreement way back, which allows for this restraint of trade. Does his conduct pass the test of being a “reasonable person” and is this ethically and morally defendable? Not in a hundred years.

We could probably continue with several more examples. I have written extensively in the past about termination charges on expensive investment products, the so-called policy fees taken by short term insurance agents despite them making between 15% to 20% commission on the premium paid, and financial advisors for receiving trail fees for providing absolutely no service.

All the above-mentioned individuals will have a lot to say about the prevailing political and economic situation in our country and the moral deterioration of the broader society, much as I am doing now. It is however time for each one of us to do some introspection. We need to start measuring our actions against a much higher standard, one where you do what is right and not what is convenient, profitable, or where the only benefactor is yourself.

The irony is that once you start treating others in such a way, your business, family, team, or whatever circle of influence you operate in, will simply go from strength to strength.

Andró Griessel is a certified financial planner and managing director at Woodland Wealth (previously known as ProVérte Wealth & Risk Management). Contact him at

Although all possible care was taken in the drafting of this document, the factual correctness of the information contained herein cannot be guaranteed. This document does not constitute advice and anyone planning on taking any financial action based on this document, is strongly advised to first consult with their personal financial advisor. Woodland Wealth is an authorised financial service provider with FSP no. 5966.


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