Is lack of ethics just not cricket?

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While it’s the time of year to focus on the good things in life, it’s impossible to forget that 2018 has been a reminder of how things can go wrong – and not just in the financial services industry.

The findings of the review by The Ethics Centre into the organisational culture and governance of Australian Cricket is a story of how an organisation’s culture is affected from the top down.

Which is why we are particularly pleased that the guest speaker at the Pritchitt Partners’ New Year reception in January will be the author of that report, Dr Simon Longstaff, executive director of The Ethics Centre.

All organisations (especially those in financial services) should be considering their ethics and it will be fascinating to hear what Simon says about the place for ethics post the Hayne Royal Commission.

Just not cricket

In cricket, the Australian team often speaks about not crossing the line, but never defines what, or where, this mythical line is.  Most people probably feel it has been crossed many times in the past. But without a clear definition of what the line is, how does it work? If enforceable codes of ethics and conduct were agreed to by players and were promoted, would the on-field behaviour be better?

Simon’s review found the problem wasn’t just the team – there was a “nothing matters but winning” culture prevalent throughout Cricket Australia.  His report clearly showed change was needed from the highest level down.

Similarly, respected banking and financial service institutions, once widely trusted, have adopted a “profit first, customer second” approach in recent times.

Ethical behaviour should be a cornerstone for trust in the financial world.  However, banks now rank amongst the least trusted organisations in Australia.

Professional conduct

One of the definitions of a profession is that its members must abide by an enforceable code of ethics, with the emphasis on “enforceable”.

It might be a bit extreme, but in order to have a more professional approach perhaps the regulatory regime for financial services organisations should dictate that all employees, from the top down, are bound by an enforceable code of ethics and practice as a condition of employment.

Anyone who doesn’t comply – whether a director or a junior – would either be suspended or have their employment terminated.

The odds are that few employment contracts would mention ethical behaviour and most would focus on protecting the company’s interests.

Indeed it has become clear that the lack of ethical practice in financial services was condoned at the very top of organisations, so that is where new standards of behaviour must be set.

CBA chief executive Matt Comyn has told the Royal Commission that before his promotion to the top job he raised doubts about certain bank practices but was told by his predecessor to “temper your sense of justice”.  That’s no attitude for a chief executive of any organisation to have – but who’s going to tell their CEOs otherwise?

We have always believed that one of the responsibilities of the public relations team is to act as the conscience of an organisation – which includes being guardian of reputation and therefore ethical practice.

To do this, public relations needs to be part of the senior management team, not just an adjunct of the marketing department or a facilitator, which is not always the case in Corporate Australia, even where there is a dedicated public relations department.

As it is, the new focus on ethics means we are likely to see a proliferation of advisory firms offering Ethical and Cultural Advice programs – and a raft of New Year Resolutions from financial services firms promising to make changes.

We hope that next year will be a better year for everyone in financial services – season’s greetings and best wishes for 2019