Ethics in the workplace: why bad business is bad for business

Focusing on just profit and loss makes the business environment worse for all concerned

Business schools inculcate an attitude that there is little more imporant than keeping your profits high and your losses low. Maximising shareholder value is the name of the game, and pesky corporate ethics - and even the law, if you think you can get away with it - must be jettisoned if they get in the way. But this isn't just bad for society; it may harm the very foundation on which economics rest.

Although ethics courses are taught in business schools, a recent Bloomberg op-ed by University of Chicago Business School professor Luigi Zingales points out that they are treated very much as secondary subjects, tought by low-ranking professors, perpetuating the idea "that ethics are only for those students who aren’t smart enough to avoid getting caught."

And it gets worse. The overwhelming push to view everything in cold monetary terms leaks into other courses where it is absolutely inappropriate. Zingales writes of a collegue, Gary Becker, who teaches the economics of crime. Comparing the expected value of success to the cost of punishment multiplied by the chance of being caught results in many crimes looking like quite good uses of your time (although not bank robbery, which, a recent paper in Significance magazine showed, only pays around £12,000 while resulting in jail in around a fifth of attempts). But Becker's students took that descriptive model as prescriptive: "They perceived any failure to commit a high-benefit crime with a low expected cost as a failure to act rationally, almost a proof of stupidity," writes Zingales.

It's not hard to see the direct link between the prevailing attitude at business schools and the recent actions of HSBC, which just admitted in a Senate hearing to transporting $7bn from Mexico to the US, ignoring "red flags that the volume of dollars included proceeds from illegal drug sales in the United States". HSBC clearly took a view of the potential profit and loss that could be made by weakening their adherence to money laundering regulations, and decided that the trade-off was worth it, without taking into account the broader societal reasons why those regulations are a good idea.

But even if they decide that it's not the best idea to act criminally, it's still problematic if we have a class of high-powered business people who think that ethics is for weaklings. Focusing too hard on the black and white difference between illegality and legality erodes all the shades of grey between "things you should do" and "things you shouldn't do". You aren't allowed to use slave labour to build your products in Britain, but is that really the only reason you shouldn't? That line of thinking often results in desperate attempts to prove that things which are undesirable are also unprofitable, leading to arguments that slavery is unprofitable, or BP would make more money if they stopped drilling up oil. Those things may or may not be true, but do we really want to base our prescription of how business should behave on changeable facts? If it suddenly became profitable to own slaves – say we find a really good way of making Battle Royale-style control collars – does that make it OK?

The fact is, the general undercurrent of ethics that we all live our lives by does extend to businesses. Any one of us could, if we wanted, steal from a hundred unattended coats, bags and desks every day, but we don't. Nor do we only keep promises when we have signed contracts, or only tell the truth if there is regulation making us do so. Similarly, many businesses have ample opportunities to, both legally and illegally, increase their profit. You can hold off paying invoices until you are served notice, encourage interns to work for free – or pay to work – and just generally be nasty. And while some don't take them, a growing number do.

A survey from "whistleblower law firm" Labaton Sucharow showed that 24 per cent of senior executives in US and UK finance said they believed "financial services professionals may need to engage in unethical or illegal conduct to be successful". We can safely assume that the number who believe that they need to engage in unethical but not illegal conduct is higher still.

But if you end up with a business system where a large proportion of people are acting unethically, then things slowly fall apart. Everyone starts lawyering up, as "verbal contracts" and "gentlemen's agreements" are replaced with real contracts exhastatively negotiated. What were ethical obligations become legal obligations, and where the legal system can adapt fast enough, it jettisons the parts that are holding it back.

Take, for example, the "charity tax". The idea of using the tax system to reward philanthropy is something which, on the surface, makes sense. But then individuals who believe that they have a moral obligation to pay as little tax take advantage of it, the charities commission is forced to crack down on "fake charities" and eventually, pressure hits the government to remove the exemption.

The same pattern happens time and again. The safe-harbour exemption in copyright law is there to enable sites with user-generated content to exist; but it gets abused to justify wilful piracy, and SOPA is introduced in an attempt to remove it. "Carried interest" allows American investors to not pay full income tax on capital gains, but hedge fund managers abuse it to pay themselves tax free, and the "Buffet rule" is suggested. And the BBA allows banks to self-report their rate of borrowing, until Barclays mis-reports their rates for financial gain and ideas for post-Libor regulation involve billion-dollar mandatory loans.

Bad business is bad for business. In the long run, either they tighten up, or they force the law to do it for them.

J.S. Mill, ethicist and philosopher. Could businesses learn from him? Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser