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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Why Philip Green's fall should bring down the honours system – but won't

Sir Shifty may fall in disgrace, but our ridiculous system will endure. No matter what's happening in the rest of politics.

Sir Philip Green’s Efficiency Review (2010) is his Das Kapital and it is still, happily, online. You can, if you wish, smirk at his recommendations to the government, which were solicited by David Cameron, I imagine, because when he stood next to Green he looked not like a 17th-century woodcut but like a tall, handsome semi-aristocrat.

“There is no motivation to save money or to treat cash ‘as your own’,” Green grumbles, before complaining, “There are inconsistent commercial skills across departments.” I am weeping with laughter at the whole report. But I’m not one of those BHS employees watching their pension ­vanish as the hideous cushions, throws and bedspreads pile up on the Green family yacht Lionheart. I instantly rename the yacht 14-Day Return Policy No More.

The days when Green could write efficiency reviews for people to ignore are gone. It is said that he could lose his knighthood, because that would be exciting and pointless. If so, I hope the ceremony features the formal rending of a garment from the BHS sale bin – perhaps a torn sock will be flung at his head? The Queen will not be happy, because de-knighting makes the ancient system of patronage look as ridiculous as it really is. Do intercessors between man and God make mistakes? Would they raise a man the Daily Mail now calls “Sir Shifty”? (I checked whether there was a Sir Shifty among the knights of the Round Table who flogged the Holy Grail to a passing tinker. There was not.)

Lord Melbourne advised Queen Victoria not to attempt to make her husband, Albert, a king, for if the people knew that they could make kings, they might unmake them. Green will discover this in his tiny way. But the elites should not hide their baubles. One fallen knight will not destroy the system (and I cannot think that Green will take £571m from his Lionheart cushion budget to save his knighthood by replenishing the BHS pension fund, because a knighthood is, in essence, just a tiny Bentley Continental that you wear over your nipple). One fallen knight should destroy the system but it won’t, because human conceit and docility are without end. Green will be shunned. Nothing will change.

One might have hoped that the Brexit vote would have alerted Cameron to the abyss between the electorate and the elected. (Even Alastair Campbell, chomping against Brexit, seemed to forget that he was as complicit in the alienation of voters as anyone else: government by sofa, teeth and war.) The response was glib, even for Cameron, a man so glib that I sometimes think he is a reflection in a pond. Brexit hit him like someone caught in a mild shower without an umbrella. He hummed at the lesson that history dealt him; he hummed as he left his page. It was the hum of the alpha Etonian caught out in a mistake, yes, but it was still a bloody hum.

His next act was to increase pay-offs to favoured courtiers against civil service advice and at public expense; then, it was reported, he nominated his spin doctor Craig Oliver and his former spin doctor Gabby Bertin for peerages, because the upper house needs more PRs. He has learned nothing. I wish him a relaxed retirement in which he will, apparently, write his four-page memoir, David Cameron: My Struggle (sub-subtitle: Eton Mess?). I hope he does not attempt to deny “the prosciutto affair”, because there is no need. It was not true. It was too pure a metaphor.

So the honours system, an essential part of our alienating politics, alongside dodgy donors, duck houses and George Galloway, endures in its worst form as conventional politics fails. It is a donkey sanctuary for political friends and Bruce Forsyth. I am not suggesting that everyone who has been honoured is dreadful – some lollipop ladies deserve to be patronised with an OBE (when there is no E any more), I am sure, and the lords, some of whom are excellent, are the functional opposition now – but the system can no longer be defended by the mirth potential of watching politicians ponder what light-entertainment celebrities might swing a marginal before being posthumously accused of rape. We must find something better before the house burns down. Perhaps a robust parliamentary democracy?

The problem is best expressed by the existence of a specialist consultancy called Awards Intelligence, which engages in “VIP brand-building” by soliciting awards. It sells “awards plans” from £795, which I could well imagine Philip Green perusing as he bobs about aboard Lionheart, were it not too late. The Awards Intelligence website tells us so much, though obliviously, about the narcissism of modern politics that I am tempted to reproduce it in full. But I will merely report that it asks:

"Did you know that you can join the House of Lords on a part-time basis as an Independent Crossbench Peer or a political peer affiliated to one of the main politial parties – even if you have ongoing work, family or community commitments!"

The message from Awards Intelligence, which boasts of a 50 per cent success rate, is clear: the legislature is part-time, it exists to “instil trust, add credibility and provide a platform for you to have your say” – and it can’t always spell “political”.

Sir Shifty and Awards Intelligence do not constitute the worst crisis in the history of honours, dreadful though they are. During the First World War the royal German cousins were stripped of their garters, so that British soldiers would not have to kill men of higher rank. But it is time for the Queen to stop pinning toys on nipples. They are part of a political system sweeping us, swiftly, towards the night.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue