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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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.