Integrity must be the new message from the top, says Sants

At the risk of infuriating Andrew Marr, I intend to commit my thoughts to a blog on the subject of corporate ethics. No, this is not my rumination on a firm with headquarters in Chelmsford, but on the thorny issue of business integrity.

Gekko says that greed is good and now it's legal

Gordon Gekko is back in British filmhouses in Wall Street 2: Money Never Sleeps with Michael Douglas reprising the role of the unprincipled slash and burn moneyman.

In the new film we see an unrepentant Gekko in the days of boom before the recent banking bust celebrating the fact that “greed is good and now it seems it’s legal”. According to the film’s director Oliver Stone, individuals like Gekko have passed their date stamp, sharp suited dinosaurs who have been replaced by the major banks and the hedge funds: “They are the big players now…the money’s too big.”

With impeccable timing, in the same week of the film’s UK release, Hector Sants, chief executive of the Financial Services Authority, addressed the issue of corporate culture and ethics in a Mansion House conference speech, and how in the banking industry a company’s value system was critical in shaping the behaviours and judgments of its people.

Management, he said, had a critical role in determining the culture of an organisation and setting the direction and tone of a company so that employees made the right decisions. He then posed some questions that should be asked about ones firm:

  • Do management model good behaviour, i.e. make their values ‘live’?
  • Do management articulate a clearly understandable strategy?
  • Do management offer guidance and training to assist in good decision-making – for example, on ensuring the fair treatment of customers and effective risk management?
  • Do management incentivise good behaviour and deter poor behaviour and how?
  • Do management encourage the required diversity to facilitate challenge to ‘group-think’?
  • Do management articulate their vision of the right culture? (Linking the brand of the institution and its culture)

These questions should not be asked as part of a box-ticking exercise; the company culture must “ring true and be consistent with what the firm does”.

This is not always the case, he said. Some of the causes of the recent crisis were rooted in the behaviours of firms and organisational cultures. And, worryingly, some senior managers had evidently failed to learn the lessons and were repeating their mistakes as if in defiance of Einstein’s definition of insanity (doing the same thing again and again in expectation of a different result).

Companies that fail to act with integrity and to ensure good behaviour is part of the lifeblood of their organisation face regulation, he warned. He could have added that they might also find themselves the subject of Mr Stone’s next cinematic opus.

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