Image 20160316 30211 1plxyj0.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1

‘Command and control’ banks have got ethics and culture all wrong

Banks must accept they can’t control the values, beliefs and behaviours of their employees. Image sourced from Shutterstock.com

‘Command and control’ banks have got ethics and culture all wrong

The latest scandal engulfing Australia’s biggest bank has reverberated through the industry with NAB and the ANZ Bank instigating reviews of their life insurance businesses.

Earlier this year ANZ was charged with fixing its bank bill swap rate. ASIC called it “unconscionable conduct and market manipulation”.

Westpac has been implicated as well. It is understood ASIC has identified 120 of its employees as “persons on interest” in its investigations of rate rigging.

Things are getting so bad that Senator Peter Whish-Wilson quipped that the banks “should be handing out a scandal of the month award”.

A cultural solution?

Bank bosses have responded by repeating an old and tired refrain about corporate culture and ethics.

Soon after Shayne Elliot took on the job as ANZ’s CEO last October he announced that the “core purpose” and culture of the bank were his priorities.

This year ANZ has been accused of having a “toxic culture”, especially amongst its traders, alleged to have enjoyed a life of lap-dancing, drugs, booze, and enormous bonuses.

ANZ’s response? “We want to be known as a bank with a strong focus on culture, ethics and fairness,” said chief risk officer Nigel Williams.

CBA is no different. Chairman David Turner promised last year that his “will be the ethical bank, the bank others look up to for honesty, transparency, decency, good management, openness”.

With the CommInsure debacle CBA’s CEO Ian Narev defended his organisation saying “the culture that we’re building throughout the Commonwealth Bank […] is one with the customer at the centre of what we do”.

Getting ethics wrong

Bosses respond to scandals by saying they can make everything right by increasing their levels of control. Control, that is, over the values, beliefs and behaviours of their employees.

The basic mistake is to assume that ethics is about one group of people (managers) dictating ethics to another group of people (employees). This is not about individual employees making choices for which they are responsible. It is about them doing what they are told.

This completely fails to acknowledge that the reason debates over ethics in banking are occurring is because of people who have criticised dominant corporate norms, not done what the corporation expected of them, and had the courage to bring them to public attention.

The ethical breaches at CommInsure would not have come to light if it wasn’t for its former chief medical officer, Dr. Benjamin Koh, being prepared to defy the corporation’s culture by blowing the whistle.

Was ANZ being held to account for rate fixing as result of it own cultural commitment to ethics? No, it came out of an investigation by the regulator ASIC.

No room for criticism

While the banks claim to want ethical cultures, in practice they are in the business of curtailing the very forms of critical questioning that allow ethical issues to be surfaced in the first place.

One might well wonder whether the banks are serious about taking ethical responsibility for their actions, or whether this talk of culture is just trying to minimise damage after the event?

How did CBA respond when, last October, former employee Russell Phillips described how the bank was actively working to minimise compensation paid to victims of its financial planning scam?

Annabel Spring, group executive of wealth management, mounted something of a character assassination of the whistle blower. She asserted that his testimony was misleading, implying he was an unreliable witness.

When it came to the rate fixing investigation, ASIC referred to the ANZ’s behaviour as “absolutely appalling”. The bank was said to have been highly defensive and “obstructionist” as it sought to frustrate inquiries.

Holding the banks to account

The litany of scandals that have plagued the Australian financial services sector exemplify how corporations have been publicly held to account for their actions, and pressured to accept responsibility.

This is not an ethical responsibility the banks have taken on voluntarily through their “ethical cultures”. Responsibility was thrust upon them as a result of the actions of citizens, employees, regulators, and journalists.

If it wasn’t for them, the scandals would remain covered up. This shows that if we want corporations to be ethically accountable, then their conduct and behaviour needs to be open to scrutiny. Forced open where necessary.

Recent events show that the last place such scrutiny is likely to arise is within the banks themselves. Cultural control, as the proposed highroad to ethics, is an ivory tower fantasy that bears no correlation to how ethics is, in practice, brought to bear on corporate activity.

If the banks want to contribute to ethical practice they need to let go of this control, and be open to criticism, welcoming of debate, and vulnerable to dissent.

At present there is no sign that they are willing or able to do this.