Friday, 25 January 2013

Ethics, Barclays and totalitarianism

About a week ago, I heard a piece on BBC Radio 4 (I cannot remember whether it was Today in the morning or PM in the early evening) in which a speaker challenged the new statement of "purpose and value" that had been announced by Barclays chief executive. A full account of the statement can be found at this page on Barclays website, a page aimed at those who might be seeking employment with the bank. The chief executive's announcement caught the headlines because of his insistence that current employees who were not happy to sign up to the new statement of purpose and values should leave the organisation (report at the Guardian here):
Antony Jenkins, who took over as chief executive at the end of August after the bank was rocked by an interest rate rigging scandal, said bonuses and performance would be assessed against a new "purpose and values" blueprint.

"I have no doubt that the overwhelming majority of you … will enthusiastically support this move. But there might be some who don't feel they can fully buy into an approach which so squarely links performance to the upholding of our values," Jenkins said in a memo to his 140,000 staff ...
If you look at the statement on the Barclays website, it is structured as a statement of purpose - "Helping people achieve their ambitions - in the right way" - that is then developed as five values - Respect, Integrity, Service, Excellence and Stewardship. Each value is then presented as four Behaviours. [Aside: any number of organisations other than a bank could adopt this statement of purpose, so one wonders how it actually defines the specific purpose of any organisation, let alone Barclays.]

The challenge to this statement in the Radio 4 piece was, roughly speaking, that the statement actually contained nothing that suggested that Barclays was expecting its employees to conduct the business in a way that complied with moral principles. The values and behaviours might well reflect the (financial and brand) interests of Barclays; but they do not represent a basis for morally just conduct on the part of employees. The word "honesty" does not appear anywhere - neither under the value of Integrity nor under the value of Stewardship. This is a striking failure when it is dishonest conduct for which Barclays has suffered finanical and reputational damage of late - scroll down this BBC report to see a list. The speaker in the Radio 4 piece referred to the values of the Quakers that lay behind the founding of Barclays, and decried their absence from the statement of purpose and values.

I believe there is a more subtle issue at stake here, that has a significance well beyond the boundaries of one particular financial institution. Barclays statement of Purpose, Values and Behaviours appears designed to ensure regulatory compliance before anything else, and only approaches a suggestion that colleagues should behave morally when it indicates they should challenge behaviours that might put this at risk. Regulatory compliance at an operational level appears to have replaced the expectation of honest behaviour at the level of the individual employee. This is perhaps an inevitable consequence of moral relativism, which cannot define any behaviour in terms of moral right and wrong; but its unfortunate consequence is that morality in its turn comes to be defined and imposed by law.

And the word for that is totalitarianism.

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