The Federal Reserve Bank of New York hosted a conference in October that looked at reforming culture and behavior in the financial services industry. In his opening remarks, New York Fed President William C. Dudley stated that culture is at the heart of industry problems that have eroded its trustworthiness.
“The evidence is pervasive that deep-seated cultural and ethical problems have plagued the financial services industry in recent years,” Dudley said. “Bad conduct has occurred in both investment banking and securities market activities, as well as retail banking.”
It’s hard to argue with history. From Barclay’s Libor scandal to Countrywide Financial’s discriminatory lending practices to Wells Fargo’s more recent woes, financial services has produced high-profile scandals on a seemingly routine basis.
Dudley’s comments serve as a well-reasoned exhortation for bold steps to restore trust because success in financial services is ultimately and inexorably tied to customer confidence.
But I believe it is unfair to single out financial services. There have been too many examples of corporate fraud and abuses outside banking that were born from misaligned or toxic cultures, from FIFA corruption, VW’s “dieselgate,” and Baylor University’s sexual assault scandal this decade to Enron, WorldCom, and Madoff in the century’s first decade.
The common victim in all of these examples is trust, and its restoration should be a top priority. After all, isn’t the success of publicly traded companies tied to investor trust? Isn’t success in our public institutions tied to public trust? However, as with many thorny challenges, identifying the problem is easier than finding a solution.
In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, the U.S. Congress crafted the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which changed the regulatory landscape for financial institutions operating in the United States when it was signed into law in 2010.
One of the more significant provisions of Dodd-Frank was the creation of a mechanism to provide financial incentives for whistleblowers. Since 2011, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has been rewarding whistleblowers whose tips have led to enforcement actions with monetary sanctions of more than US$1 million. As of the end of 2015, the SEC’s Office of the Whistleblower (OWB) had received more 14,000 whistleblower tips and had paid more than US$54 million overall to 22 whistleblowers.
In a 2014 blog, I made the case that all lines of defense have failed when the whistle blows. Indeed, for internal auditors, going outside of the organization to report corporate wrongdoing raises significant Code of Ethics and conflict-of-interest issues.
However, whether the whistleblower comes from the ranks of internal audit or not, one must ponder how paying someone for doing the right thing can restore a healthy culture.
From my experience, whistleblowers are more often motivated by conscience than the prospect of monetary gain. However, whistleblowers are too often isolated, ostracized, and penalized for speaking out. If we truly want to promote healthy cultures in which wrongdoing is exposed and culprits are held accountable, we should cloak whistleblowers with a shield of protection, not shower them with cash.
My favorite definition of corporate culture is “how things are done around here.” Whistleblowers are the ones who step up when things aren’t being done the way they should be. These brave individuals should be celebrated, recognized, and protected as guardians of good culture — not treated as the recipients of a newfound public lottery.
As always, I look forward to your comments.