A friend recently attended a graduate career seminar and was told by an anonymous investment banker: “I don’t care if you’re a terrorist on the weekend, as long as you make me money”. This kind of sentiment was backed by anecdotal stories of those who have experienced rampant sexism and racism within the banking and financial sectors. The regulation on moral and ethical integrity both within and outside work hours is low compared to other industries, as several Quit-and-Tell-All stories have revealed. Money-aspirationalism supports a new culture of self-promotion over client concerns and social responsibility. Instead of thinking –“am I doing the right thing?” the question becomes, “how can I work around the system to make the most money for myself and my boss?”
The culture begins as an offspring of selfish desire within University, and it is here that it should be headed off. When I personally began a Commerce degree in 2010 I was unaware of these cultural and ethical dilemmas in the profession. Sitting in a Management lecture, I was eager to prove myself, with my ability to string sentences together for the furtherance of my ideas. Like most people, I had selfish reasons for being there, but I kept myself in check with the idea that, at the least, I shouldn’t be hurting other people with what I did.
Sat in a side row, I was confronted by the lecturer’s question: “Why do you want to be a manager?”
“Power,” someone shouted out immediately.
“I want to make lots of money,” said another.
“To control people,” said another at the back.
“Passion,” was out of place when contrasted against this flurry of answers.
I kept silent. I later learnt that many students found Management a pointless subject; “Why should we study ethics and leadership?” a student asked me that first year, “It’s just so boring. When do we get to something practical?” another student interjected.
In private, camaraderie was built around the destruction of people who were “different”. When gathered in private, some students would make racist remarks about the large international contingent of students at UNSW business school. Later, this trend continued at Sydney University, where a student once tried to justify British colonialism and Australian settlement to me, all in a bar off King Street. Some students would list off the benefits and detriments of dating different races – listing a swathe of generalizations to “justify” their analyses of why one race was better to date than another.
There was a presumption that you too had low moral and ethical integrity, and in private you were expected to laugh along with these comments and/or jokes. The psychological pressures of groupthink were substantial. Protests were met by a shutdown by majority. Objections were met by the idea of you being a “fun-killer”, or other generic comment; all were a form of peer pressure. All of this was done in the confines of a University education.
Yet despite all of this unethical behaviour, I was still asked year upon year, “Why should we learn about ethics?”
Obviously not every student studying Commerce had this attitude, and many flourished and will no doubt go on to become ethical businesspeople. But undoubtedly there is a culture that resists ethical teaching. Often it is those most verbose in private with their sexist and racist remarks who most often found ethics classes “boring”.
The idea of ethics being “boring” extended beyond the degree to careers that were associated with morality and social justice. One student openly laughed when another said she was going to do social work upon graduation. “But that won’t make you any money. What a stupid idea,” she was ridiculed.
Another student asked me once where the “line” was for sexual consent. When I explained that there was no line, and that only a woman saying “yes” was consent, he protested that it was a grey area. Pointing out the law on the matter did little to change his mind.
People have individual failings, and I have my own, but I think it is simplistic to artificially separate business from people’s personal ethics and morality. While that investment banker might well say: “I don’t care if you’re a terrorist on the weekend, as long as you make me money,” it should be questioned whether there is some other imperative behind our work-life aside from money-making.
Even if ethics is “boring” or “wont make you money”, at the very least they prevent us from disproportionately harming each other. Offending people for a laugh, judging people on their race or sex, or “blurring the line” of consent and committing sexual assault, is not something that can be separated from business integrity and professionalism. Rather, it speaks to the fundamental core of who we are as individuals. If we cannot make money whilst being responsible for our words and actions, then we shouldn’t be making money at all.