Lee Robertson: Tackling unethical behaviour


The chatter on the blogs about the proposed merger between the IFP and the CISI, and whether the former’s members taking the latter’s ethics paper will enable them to secure the chartered wealth manager title, has got me thinking about ethics once again. You see, I have previously taken the CISI paper and it got me thinking at the time.

The thing is, I sometimes struggle with the whole “ethics” discussion and tend to think it is just a fancy word for good behaviour.

I had this conversation with my team the other day. I opined that virtually all of us were brought up with the values and concepts of not telling lies, not dropping litter, treating each other the way we would wish to be treated and not stealing. Yes, we might all fail with these principles from time to time (no one is perfect, after all) but, generally, we understand what good behaviour is and how it should form part of our core as good human beings.

With this in mind, is it necessary that we should be taught and examined on a module in ethics in order to demonstrate the fact we can be trusted to act with compassion, understanding and integrity towards our clients? What is more, is it even possible to teach an adult ethics or ethical behaviour?

My gut reaction is that you cannot. It must surely already be instilled within us during our formative years and from the experiences we gain in business.  Nevertheless, I thought I should find out more and so I turned to our trusty friend Google for help with my opinion.

There were lots of arguments for and against, of course. However, I was particularly interested in an article in the Harvard Business Review, which quoted a new study by David T. Welsh and Lisa D. Ordonez.

They assert that the road to bad behaviour is usually a gentle slope and those with growing opportunities to behave unethically are much more likely to rationalise bad conduct while gathering pace downhill than if they were presented with one big opportunity to act badly. All sorts of interesting academic evidence is cited to support this viewpoint. It usually begins with “rounding up” and rationalising minor indiscretions before progressing to more problematic and unethical behaviour. Sadly, it also suggests that a few bad apples can influence generally good people around them to bad behaviours.

However, if their study is correct, it also comes to the conclusion that some nudges towards good behaviours can have the opposite effect. Even the subconscious exposure of people to ethical content and actions increased their moral awareness and prompted more ethical behaviour.

So it appears that an ethics exam may well be extremely useful after all, particularly for nudging those beginning to drift towards bad behaviours back towards the good ones.

Lee Robertson is chief executive of Investment Quorum.