August 2014

August 11th, 2014 by Jennie O'Reilly

Once again we are in a month where workplace ethics are hitting the headlines. A leading government minister chose a very public resignation over a clash of personal and professional ethics. The same month an asset management executive was dismissed from his position and is now on the edge of further Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) scrutiny having dodged his daily commuter train fares for over 5 years. The challenge of reconciling personal ethics with professional conduct is as current a topic as it ever was...

Against this backdrop comes the 'Virtuous Banking’ report from leading think tank ResPublica, recommending that bankers ‘must swear oath’ in order to restore public trust in their fractured industry. Clearly this is a topical subject– generating over 800 public comments on the BBC’s ‘Have Your Say’. Reading this headline and the resulting public debate got me thinking – would signing an oath have prevented Jonathan Burrows from dodging fares on his daily commute? I don’t think so. And here’s why...

Having worked in the learning and development industry for over 6 years and having witnessed Steps’ 20 years of experience in action, it seems to me that behaviours and values can only truly be challenged through doing. Asking people to put pen to paper at the outset of a contract is yet another piece of paper to be signed – along with the ‘next of kin’ documentation and the reams of financial form-filling that forms part of the long and slow on-boarding process. In truth, I very much doubt that anyone would really read the content of a banker’s oath and if they did read it I don’t think they would internalise the messages – let alone change their behaviours because of it.

ResPublica suggests that an oath would enable bankers to ‘fulfill their proper moral and economic purpose’ they also add that such an oath would ‘place bankers on the road to absolution’. I would challenge the notion that a signature on a piece of paper can fundamentally change deeply embedded negative behaviours. For change to really occur – individuals must have the chance to reflect on their reality and experience the impact of their behaviours on themselves and others. Creating real visibility of ethical dilemmas and the potential conflicts that arise from this is critical if you are to achieve long term engagement at an individual level (which is the foundation on which all ethics programmes should be built).

On paper it is quite plausible that you could comfortably tick a box that says ‘I will confront profligacy and impropriety wherever I encounter it’ (as suggested by ResPublica), but is that quite so easy when the perpetrator is your senior, a manager with whom you have worked for years, a colleague who is the gateway to your continued success and potential progression within the firm? The question of ethics is never black and white – it cannot be reduced simply to a ‘tick box exercise’ to test people’s ability to ‘say what they think they should say.’ The subtle nuances and challenges that revolve around this topic are many and varied – and it’s for this reason that experience and engagement on a visceral level holds the key. 

The BBA (British Banking Association)’s Paul Chisnall captured it well when he said that ‘meaningful cultural change takes time’. He believes that an oath could be part of the answer – but acknowledges that there needs to be a much more holistic effort to engage individuals with the question of what it means to work ethically.

In the case of Jonathan Burrows – the not-so artful dodger – whose unethical practice was committed outside of the workplace, another important factor is the slightly murky term ‘extension of the workplace’. How do we define this? At what point does your personal time truly become your own? Does it matter when an individual acts unethically outside of the workplace? It seems Burrows’ employer doesn’t think so – when Burrows left his role earlier this month a company spokesperson commented, ‘What he’s alleged to have done is totally contrary to our values and principles’. The FCA appear to agree, as their investigation centres around the fact that, as an investment executive, his personal conduct may not be in keeping with the ethical practices required of such a role.

And what of the government minister? Her decision to resign was apparently driven by a sense of personal ethics and her desire to conduct herself professionally in a manner which didn’t compromise her morals and beliefs. In an interview, she said, "For me, this is all about policies and principles. Long after politics has come and gone, I want to be able to live with myself." Politics aside, and whether you agree with her decision or not, this is what it comes down to – an individual living with the decisions that he or she has taken and being accountable, to themselves, their colleagues and their businesses - for their conduct.

No oath would have stopped Jonathan Burrows from what appears to be one of the largest fare-dodging scams we’ve seen. Sure, it might have made him consider the boundary between private and professional from an ethics standpoint – but I do not think that signing a piece of paper would have fundamentally changed his choice of behaviour.

Am I wrong?


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