Can business ethics get any worse? Later this summer, the Justice Department is expected to announce charges of criminal wrongdoing in GM’s handling of faulty ignition switches that led to a series of fatal accidents. The New York Times says GM will likely agree to a record settlement—more than the $1.2 billion that Toyota paid for a sudden acceleration problem. And Tanaka has finally admitted after years of denial that its explosive airbag problem justifies the largest recall in auto history (and that’s saying a lot).
In the financial industry, five of the world’s biggest banks are now convicted felons. Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase, Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland, and UBS AG pleaded guilty to criminal charges of conspiring to rig currency and interest rates, behavior that hurt almost everyone who uses credit. According to the Justice Department, the conspiracy enabled the banks to pad their profits over five years without regard to fairness, the law, or the public good. Felonies usually carry painful penalties, but not in this case. Not a single individual will be charged with a crime, and the fines, a total of $9 billion, don’t seem very large when you consider the banks’ revenues for the five years in question totaled $85 billion, according to The New York Times.
It’s not much better in the medical and academic professions, where pressure for fame and profits too often gets the better of the public good. In The New York Times this week, ethics Professor Carl Elliott wrote of the embarrassing scandals at his school, the University of Minnesota, but the problems are all too typical of the overlapping worlds of research and medicine.
The world of sports has also has its share of scandals, what with the NFL’s suspension of star quarterback Tom Brady in deflategate and the U.S. indictment of nine world soccer officials and five sports executives and marketers on charges of bribery and fraud—to the tune of $150 million.
And the problems go far deeper than the headlines. A survey of finance industry professionals released Tuesday by The University of Notre Dame and Labaton Sucharow LLP makes for depressing reading. The key findings:
- 47% believe their competitors engaged in unethical or illegal activity in order to gain an edge in the market, up from 39% in a similar 2012 survey.
- More than one-third (34%) of those earning $500,000 or more annually have witnessed or have firsthand knowledge of wrongdoing in the workplace.
- 23% believe it is likely that fellow employees have engaged in illegal or unethical activity in order to gain an edge, nearly double the 2012 figure.
- 25% would likely use non-public information to make a guaranteed $10 million if there was no chance of getting arrested for insider trading.
- Nearly one in five respondents feel financial services professionals must at least sometimes engage in illegal or unethical activity to be successful.
- Nearly one-third of respondents (32%) believe compensation structures or bonus plans in place at their company could incentivize employees to compromise ethics or violate the law.
The outlook isn’t entirely bleak. There are some signs that the beefed-up whistle-blowing provisions in the 2010 Dodd-Frank law are having a positive effect. Since 2011, the Securities and Exchange Commission has paid out hundreds of millions of dollars to whistle blowers whose tips to investigators led to fraud convictions. And the higher rewards have led to a much higher rate of reports of wrongdoing—more than 10 a day on average. But that’s small consolation, given the storm of ethical violations dominating the front pages.
It’s hard to know what conclusions to draw from all this, other than the pressure to make money and beat the competition continues to win out against conscience and morality. Until that changes, we need strong regulation and stronger regulators, whether from the government, within industry or from sport administrators. Self-policing just isn’t enough, an obvious but depressing conclusion.