Ethics in the modern Financial Services Industry

The topic of “Ethics” is puzzling and an intangible matter that is difficult to define. To look at this issue in detail we need to consider the following:

  • Ethics: do we understand what these are, and once understood, can we achieve and live by them and…
  • What are the complex relationship challenges and requirements within a transparent ethical environment to simply “do the right thing” in our professional and personal lives?  

These are complex questions, and there are not necessarily clearly defined answers. Much is still up for debate. Nevertheless, I have endeavored to cover both the above approaches in this article.

There is a valuable and real sense of purpose concerning ethical behavior from what I see as an “overlap” between the commercial, financial and “not-for-profit” sectors, and the approach to ethics and standards in our professional life. As part of my consultancy work, I speak at various industry forums about ethics, commercial and professional standards, and the need “to do the right thing.” What has become clear to me is the need to see a greater sense of respect, probity and morality in public life, and within the financial and commercial business environment. These elements should encompass greater trust, a greater sense of value in business relationships, and genuine demonstrative leadership. If this can be achieved, we will enhance our ability to provide a clearer approach in our debate and communication with others.

How do we achieve this goal? I believe there needs to be:

  • An honest and transparent re-examination of society’s current behavioral attitudes, and ethical approach within the commercial and financial sectors, from a regulatory, business, and a moral perspective
  • A re-building of professional communications and confidence in our financial and commercial institutions, business leaders and politicians

Maintaining clear and achievable ethics and standards are key to this approach. The initial challenge is that the term “ethics” is not always understood. It is probably easier to say what ethics is not. For instance; it is not a religion, and it is not necessarily doing “whatever society accepts” by simply “following the law.”

From my experience, I would say that that ethics is: “a well-formed set of standards concerning right and wrong, which leads to a moral belief and a moral code of conduct”.

As a result, an ethical society is one that values a commitment to do the right thing, regardless of the personal cost to oneself. I do not believe these are easy criteria or standards by which to live; but I do believe they are well worth preserving, and pursuing. However, conflict arises when one has to consider what the law requires, and what one’s personal ethical standards require? In short; how does one conform and live by both? Herein lies the challenge; in particular with regards to today’s financial and commercial environments. 

Apart from the need for clear and understandable ethics and standards throughout the professional work environment, this approach should also apply to our own personal interactive attitudes towards one another. As such, ethics and standards apply to all professions and work roles, all ages, and to our personal interaction with all members of society.

My professional experience in the banking and “not-for-profit” industries has taught me that when such an approach is adopted at the top of an organization these positive values, culture, and behaviors tend to cascade downwards from above, to management and staff; resulting in a more cohesive work force, and a better corporate performance. The leaders and senior management of a corporate entity, if they are real leaders, must show the way; they must truly be influential and lead!

To make this actually happen, ethics has to be appealing, engaging, creative, inclusive, and even exciting! But how does one make this topic so? For example; is “doing the right thing” particularly exciting? I would say that it can, if espoused in the correct manner. Let me explain; the biggest asset of a corporate is never shown on the balance sheet, and that is staff. If staff are treated in a fair, ethical and responsible manner with transparent standards laid down, if they (the staff) are given responsibility and recognition, and if the CEO shows conviction, courage and empathy towards staff, and the towards the mission of the corporate, then to me this is an exciting business environment in which to work. Such an environment will allow for a more decisive and communicative presence between all employees and their seniors; and that clearly is a good thing! But the onus initially is on the employer and “leader” in this instance, to exude such behavior through his or her own individual branded “corporate culture.”

How do we meet this exacting goal and virtuous demeanor?

This is a further challenge; given we require a strong moral standard, and a clear code of professional conduct, in order to enable the commercial world in its widest sense, to function in an orderly and trustworthy fashion. In particular, when businesses “go-wrong,” we need a “code” for us all to adhere to, in order to “correct” the situation by using accepted methodologies, systems, and recognized processes.

An acceptable professional etiquette, and standard is required to enable the “Trust” factor, the “Value” factor, and the “Leadership” factor to flourish, and resonate. I will expand on these three items later in this article; but for the moment, let me say that this approach is not happening to a great extent in today’s business and professional arenas. Why is this the case? I would offer the following as a possible answer, although this is just one of potentially many reasons;

In my opinion there is a strong connection between; (1) an individual’s or an employee’s contentment, and (2) an individual’s mental and physical well-being. This connection is important to understand in the ethics discussion.

To clarify:

  • With a strongly structured set of positive standards in the work place, I see a “generic uplift,” in our society; thereby allowing society to achieve economic and cultural advancement, and greater success
  • From my experience, this approach enables better social behaviour and improved social cohesion, resulting in a more contented society
  • With society’s greater contentment comes greater success. A more contented and successful workforce and society allows for an improved economy; and an improved economy, means an enhanced and better-off country, thereby enabling us to build a better society overall

Consequently, individual members of society find their contentment, and their mental and physical well-being are all linked to a more productive society; both socially and economically. As a result; clear and strong ethical values and standards that have enabled this “productivity” and “success” to happen, are the catalysbehind this progress; and without these ethics and standards, the progress referred to, would be far less, if at all!

It is up to every individual coupled with a strong set of family structure, supported by a society with a robust and creative educational system and one with emotional intelligence, to take this “ethical linkage” forward. This approach is too important to leave exclusively to governments and faceless regulatory bodies. It is the human condition itself and human enterprise that will enable this process to be inculcated and progressed through the absolute freedom and transparent democratic processes we enjoy in our Western industrialized culture. The human condition is a bit like “nature”. It will find a way, in spite of all the vicissitudes along the road to its eventual destination. To my mind it has to, or the human condition is doomed to complete and absolute moral relativism; and that is a plague I would not wish on anyone!

I now wish to take the debate to the next level.

Throughout my professional career of 30 years or more, I have witnessed and experienced first-hand the disparate and changing behaviors of individuals in society here and abroad, within the work place, and wider public domain. The overall impression for me personally is challenging; given I believe most of us with common sense want to make our society and country a better place. This is not an easy task I fear currently due to the “Brexit debate” that was, continued disunity in the country, together with the social and professional stress under which many people suffer in today’s professional and personal environment. To my mind, the apparent lack of any honest and transparent economic, political, or even spiritual leadership here in the UK certainly does not assist in improving matters.

In the first part of this article, I attempted to answer what ethics is, and how we can identify and adhere to an ethical approach in the working environment, and also in our private affairs. I defined ethics by “what it is not!” As such, I now offer a further definition of ethics as: “a well-formed set of standards concerning right and wrong, which leads to a moral belief and a moral code of conduct”.  

I believe that the above definition provides a clearer understanding about “what ethics is;” and as such, we can better appreciate what essentially constitutes ethics, what are its challenges, and how it is made up.

At its simplest; ethics is a system of moral principles; and these principles affect how people make decisions and lead their lives. Ethics is concerned with what is good for individuals and society. It can be described as a moral philosophy. The term ethics is derived from the Greek word “ethos” which means custom, habit, character or disposition, and covers a number of key challenges. These can be considered as:

  • How to live a good life
  • Our rights and responsibilities
  • The language of right and wrong
  • Moral decisions – what is good and bad?

Our concept of ethics has been derived over the centuries from various religions, philosophies and cultures. These scenarios infuse debates on topics like abortion, human rights and professional conduct; and it is “professional conduct” and the work environment in particular in which ethics and ethical behavior impinge upon our society, our professional life, the work place, and ultimately the culture of our country.

Consider the following:

Ethics is not necessarily solely about how we behave towards one another, how we react given a particular situation, or doing the right thing and obeying the law etc., it is more than this. It is also about character. Furthermore, it is about individual steadfastness, creativity, empowerment, and total honesty with oneself. This means allowing individuals to delve deep into their very own creativeness thereby empowering themselves to:

  • Think freely without being told what to consider
  • Speak freely without being told what to say, and…
  • Provide society with creative wealth without being told how to produce, or offer it

We are fortunate in the UK because ethics is an accepted approach of our social and economic way of life that has been adopted within our democratic system, and confines of this country’s true and valued freedoms; and in a manner that conveys acceptable and civilized behaviour. Ethics in the commercial world highlights some of the key characteristics of a free market, of the financial Eco-system in which we work, property rights, and the nation state and its residents; irrespective of ethnicity, background, religion, and social circumstances. These are the embodiment’s of the freedoms that we enjoy by living in an economically modern and socially well-managed Western democratic civilized and industrialized society; and therefore, these incarnations provide our society with an ethical code of conduct by which to live.

All humanity should enjoy these freedoms, given they are based on clear ethical values; but these values and resultant freedoms do not come automatically as a “right”. These are privileges that have to be earned and won; as this country’s freedom has been won from a historical perspective, at a significant price.

Consequently, the ethical characteristics and features of the nation state need to be jealously coveted and preserved. We do this by using three key factors, which I alluded to earlier, and these are:

  • The Trust Factor
  • The Value Factor
  • The Leadership Factor

To illustrate these characteristics and features, let us look at each from a commercial perspective of, for example, a buyer and seller:

The Trust Factor consists of credibility with one’s client, plus integrity and reliability. Together these attributes will allow for professional intimacy between a supplier and a buyer. If one then adds to this approach one’s own personal attention to detail as a representative of one’s employer, and in doing so utilizes and maximizes one’s own professional style and self-orientation, we have real trust, and a true client relationship and partnership.

When considering the Value Factor, we need to remember that the dialogue between buyer and seller is all about the client relationship, and the client’s perception of that relationship because; in today’s commercial environment, perception is indeed reality. Consequently, we are talking about displaying true probity, genuine respect, integrity, morality and absolute dignity in discussions with the client. This dialogue is not just with the external client, but is also with an “internal” client, where for example; one is reliant on another internal department’s work and contribution, in meeting the needs and targets of one’s own corporate department. The commercial bottom line of revenue generation is always present of course. But this has to be supported and enhanced by managing the expectations of people and stakeholders from inside and outside the organization. But none of the latter will come to fruition, most importantly revenue generation, unless the aforementioned Trust and Value factors are there as the glue that encompasses a true ethical approach. As such, ethics surpasses all!

 As a further example, consider the following:

  • In any business relationship there is a supplier of services, and a buyer of services; two key distinct entities, with both having separate functions and responsibilities
  • However, for the relationship to be successful and enduring, I suggest that there are actually three entities in the relationship, not just two
  • There is (1) the supplier; (2) the buyer; and additionally, there is (3) the “business relationship” itself, which must be based on ethical business practices that encompass trust and values
  • This business relationship should be treated as you yourself would wish to be treated; (like a marriage with three elements to it; the husband, the wife, and the marriage itself)
  • This “relationship approach” is essential because it represents the ethical interactive and intimate behavior of both parties, which enables this business relationship to flourish, irrespective of size. Hence, ethical behavior and best business ethical practice is a must, and again trumps all! 

Finally, we have the Leadership Factor. This is more challenging, given it is subjective and depends on an individual’s personal style.  I mentioned earlier that a commercial entity’s internal attitude to employees, its external approach to the market place, and its overriding corporate and brand culture, is dependent to a very large extent upon the CEO’s personal behavioral attitudes. This behavior should demonstrate strong conviction for, and belief in, the company’s offerings and message. This behavior should also show courage to progress with agreed corporate policy or not, in the face of stiff opposition; it should further demonstrate creativity, genuine interest and empathy with employees and clients; coupled with decisiveness, communicative ability, and presence.

 My view is; had we had more trust, greater attention to fundamental detail and adherence to values, and a much stronger leadership in the international banking sector over the last few years, particularly since “Big Bang,” the recent financial crisis could have been potentially averted.

 The question therefore needs to be asked; how do we as individuals train ourselves to adopt a true ethical approach, now that we better understand what ethics is? Here, another challenge arises; this “training” can be viewed as an individual’s “journey of personal learning,” and that is not an easy project to accomplish.

Personal experience tells me that; “the older one gets, the more one learns; but – very often – the less one truly understands.” This sounds strange, does it not? Well turn the scenario around. Make life somewhat easier for oneself by aiming to understand each individual issue and problem, or situation in isolation, if need be; in spite of the fact that everything is inter-related; cause and effect, action and re-action, and so on. Even if this tactic makes one feel that one is learning less than what was initially sought at the outset when embarking on this path of self-learning or training, it does not matter; because in the longer term, this feeling of “having learned less,” will dissipate. Why? Because through this deemed initial “lesser understanding”, there is actually a deeper and more intrinsic and meaningful longer-term value; given this is only the first stage in a lengthy and enduring learning process. This supposed lesser understanding will become more significant to the individual concerned within their own chosen time frame, rather than relying on future predictions, and a “top-down” narrative. A sort of “slowly slow catch ye monkey.” Hence, in this scenario; “less is indeed more.” However, we must still ensure that one keeps one’s “target destination” constantly in mind. On this point alone Schumacher, the economist and philosopher was right when he said: “small is beautiful”. But whatever the result, or methodology used, ethics is the corner stone and represents the all-encompassing landscape within which this individual “journey of learning” resides.

In this debate on ethics, it is essential to explore what actions are behind true ethical practice. To understand this, I would suggest we consider the following:

What make humans unique as opposed to other species on this planet, is our freedom to determine how we act, and behave. Whenever we make a choice, it is always possible to have made a different one; a sort of “opportunity cost” arises. Ethics is only possible because we can act against our nature, which is based on our own personal conscience, if we so chose. Of all the ways we may act, given a particular scenario, we must ask ourselves; which is best? Of all the possibilities, we must further ask ourselves; which action should we undertake, in order to bring about the best result? These are questions that ethics tries to answer; and the driving force here is the crucial meaning of and reference to, the word “best”. We must therefore additionally ask ourselves the following; when we say “best” …by what criteria or measure? Should this be economically, commercially, socially, or even spiritually? What is actually meant by “best?”

This is a difficult question to answer, as today people are afraid to ask that very same question; given they simply feel more comfortable in continuing with the safe and proven ways of the past, or they can pass responsibility on to others as has always been the way, and/or simply stick to the status quo. The point to recognize is this; ethics is a tough partner and tool with which our good senses have to compete, as it asks us to take on responsibilities for our own true beliefs, our own actions, and live a life that is truly our own.

We then come to the next challenge, and that is; how does one decide which way to go? Stay on the same trusted path as before, or progress and live by our own true beliefs? This too is not an easy question to answer. This is because ethics is not the only supposed and deemed way to define what “a best decision” looks like. Why? Because ethics can be impinged upon and interfered with by individuals whom use it as a cover and a pretense; in order to advance their own agenda, and goals. Alternatively, others nefarious individuals may decide to focus on what is likely to be the most popular choice, irrespective of the outcome, or the means used to get there! Clearly, both modes of behavior are not ethical at all! But these are human hedonistic, selfish and short-term modes of behavior and encumbrances. Not good admittedly; but nothing more than that. If society as a whole, and individuals are mentally strong enough, we can overcome these impediments, and beat them. We can avoid them, and their seductive temptation completely.

Instead we need to maintain the belief that ethics offers us the best option to achieve what is good, right, and consistent with the scenario that we are facing at any given moment in time. The way to do this can be encapsulated under three further elements, which are; “Values”, “Principles”, and “Purpose”.

Let us look at each:

  • Values: these are things, situations, scenarios etc., that are good and that we strive for, desire        and seek to protect
  • Principles: these tell us what is right and what is wrong, so we know what we should do, in order to achieve our values and objectives
  • Purpose: this provides us with the very reason that we are here as the human race, and why we exist; that is to live on this earth with our values and principles

Given the above, we now have a possible further description of ethics, which certainly makes the debate even more intricate, and simultaneously intriguing. As such, perhaps we should add that ethics is: the process of defending, questioning, and discovering the above three categories, and clarifying who we are, and staying true to who we are, in the face of uncertainty and temptation. This additional characterisation of ethics provides extra challenges. Nevertheless, I believe that the human condition can indeed be successful and achieve the desired aim, so long as we commit to this agreed aim, and prepare our strength of character to build a life that is truly our own, and a future in which all want to provide and participate. 

To conclude:

We now finally arrive at the true heart of the ethics debate, and that is: our “Moral Compass”. In my view, this is the hardest and most abstract item in the ethics discussion to describe and define. We know what this is, or we think we do; but do we honestly know? I believe that our moral compass is: the perceived, profound and yet intangible yardstick, and criteria, that lies within all of us – without exception – to utilize and adhere to, as an instinctive personal and instructive guide, and standard for good behavior. Consequently, this “internal instrument” provides us with the ability to know; right from wrong, truth from lies, and good from evil.

You cannot teach someone on how to use their moral compass and internal intuition; call it what you like. One cannot learn about it simply by reading about it; and yes, ethics as discussed here – important and essential as it is in all civilized societies – is but the roadway on which to base this behaviour and mindset. However, it is our moral compass that has given human kind – as one of the supposedly most intelligent species on this planet – the mental capacity, the higher intelligence and wisdom to understand, to decide, and to differentiate itself from other species.

I believe that our moral compass is the “generative power” and “engine” of ethics itself. It is the core and nucleus of ethics. Consequently, I say; we must nurture this capacity, we must value and cherish it, we must hold on to it, and we must never lose it; because if lost, society is lost too; irredeemably! The result of this loss I regret to say is that humanity and the human condition will never recover, and our professional, economic, and social way of life will never be re-captured. We will find ourselves living in a world of debased moral relativism, where everything is the same, professional aspirations and goals have been nullified and have become superfluous, as we find ourselves residing in a barren culture devoid of all human traits; and where the act of genuine love, affection and willingness to help one’s fellow human being has been destroyed. Humanity will be more machine than man!

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Author: Eliot Charles Heilpern, Director, The Payments Business

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