“It wasn’t me.” Pause for one second and you will not find a more unbelievable lie than this one. When someone says these three words, what the mind hears is “it was me”.
It was with this in mind that I read the Sunday newspapers reporting that (former) head of the Competition Commission Shan Ramburuth had been using inordinate amount of company (read taxpayer) time and money to visit adult websites.
In his defence, Ramburuth did not exactly deny that he did incur something in the region of R150 000 in internet costs surfing for salacious stuff. In fact, he confirmed he spent that much, he just did not say how.
For my sins, when such stories hit the public space many people including friends ask me, what kind of advice would I offer someone like Ramburuth.
Religiously my answer is the same. I don’t know the facts. It is not easy to advise on the basis of what I read in newspapers. Typically I want to hear the “accused” person’s side of the story, what is at stake and any other supporting information.
But on the face of it, I find it unfortunate that those who find themselves in trouble, veer quickly to deny, oftentimes telling more lies and digging themselves into an even bigger hole. A clear result of panic.
Trust me I know. I had a client who did this all the time, including blaming others for their bad deeds.
Yet, on the other hand, the other sin often committed by such people – clearly motivated by power, bravado and delusions of grandeur – is taking calls from the media and answering without preparation or thought.
This is akin to walking into court of law with a legal representative. No matter how much you think the matter is manageable, facing a court without a lawyer is nothing less than suicidal.
So my initial thoughts whenever I get asked the question what I would do to advice is: “Shut up.”
If most of people in crisis could learn to step back for a second, shut their mouths and exercise their minds on the extent of the problem and what they really want to say, half the crisis would be solved.
But for “sins” like that Ramburuth is accused of, there is a tried and tested solution. If it is true, Ramburuth sin seems to be the one of addiction. And if it is, it is a sickness, rather than just naughtiness.
If you are found looking at one picture or two of people in the nude, it is naughtiness, but if you spend hundreds of thousand of rand of company money and spend hours of end trawling the internet for the forbidden fruit, it is just sickness.
My initial advice to Ramburuth would therefore have been a simple straightforward confession and apology.
“Hi, my name is Shan Ramburuth, the head of the Competition Commission. I am addicted to pornography and I have wasted excessive amount of taxpayers money on the internet searching for adult sites.
“I have come to accept that I need help. To that extent, I want to offer my immediate resignation from my job and seek immediate help. I would like to apologise to my employer, the government of South Africa, my colleagues, my family and the entire nation for such unbecoming behaviour.
“If need be, I would like to offer to pay some of the costs incurred in my sick behaviour. I have served the Competition Commission with commitment from the day I took this job, and I hope my record points to that.
“Once more I am sorry and I commit to work hard to rid myself of this sickness. I wish the Commissioner and the Commission the best in delivering the kind of South Africa we all want.”
Hands up those who won’t forgive him after reading this statement! Of course I don’t think everyone will forge. But what I know is that human beings are forgiving and empathetic by nature.
If you show remorse, accept your faults unreservedly and show commitment to fixing the problem, most people will not only forgive you, they will empathise.
And for those who refuse to forgive, the problem suddenly becomes theirs. Because from this point, all you can remind the hard-hearted is that “but I said I am sorry”.
There is pretty little that can happen beyond an apology and an offer to repair. It is the cheapest form of crisis management.