Discriminating between right and wrong and acting with integrity may seem like common sense to most people. But what are employers to do when the moral standards of those representing them repeatedly failed them in the past? The Dutch turn to God. Deities invoking or not, as of April 2015, all bankers in the Netherlands are obliged to take the Banker’s Oath. Even the transient workers – independent contractors and consultants, are not excused from the Dutch collective efforts to restore, “maintain and promote trust in the financial sector.” I joined 90,000 colleagues on the pledgers’ picket lines and solemnly declared to perform my duties with integrity and due diligence at all times, for as long as I shall exercise my service in the banking sector.
Hippocratic, or hypocritical?
Sanctioning a nation to step onto the righteous road to absolution by taking an oath in the aftermath of rigging scandals feels a little like forcing a spouse to renew martial vows on the heels of adultery. But what do I know? I have never cheated, and haven’t consciously, or premeditatedly acted in contravention of my clients’ interests. Pinning faith on a prescribed set of promises could very well be the soothing light at the end of the dark tunnel of financial services’ reputation …or, is that a freight train coming the bankers’ way?
A game of trust, or a game of fear?
Whilst taking an Oath does not serve as a guarantee, it does relay the power over to the client to drag a banker to court as soon as he feels that a promise has been breached. The ample room that the eight integrity vows leave for interpretation, is not bridged much by the 17-page summary document detailing them (‘Future-orientated Banking. Social Charter, Banking Code, Rules of Conduct’). Decisions, as well as the clients’ assessment of them remain at the mercy of subjectivity.
The specific sanctions are somewhat unclear, but could include suspension from duties, a fine, or being blacklisted. Given the legal strings attached, are bankers really going to act out of clients’ interest, or will their actions be guided by fear of clients’ retaliation? And how will fear-based decisions affect the interests of all other stakeholders involved?
Like any other professional, a banker enters an employment agreement for reasons that are primarily self-serving – to earn a living, to climb the career ladder, to belong, etc. As soon as foot is set on the work-floor however, he is expected to give the front seat away to the customer. On one hand, the Banker’s Oath prescribes that employees make work a balancing act, where the interests of various stakeholder groups – the bank, colleagues, shareholders, regulators, the “self”, the client – are weighed at all times. On the other hand, clients’ interests are to be given paramount importance: “I will carefully consider all the interests involved in the company […], in this consideration, I will give paramount importance to the clients’ interests.”
With this slightly biased take on the definition of “balance”, the Banker’s Oath has earmarks of the Emperor’s New Clothes. The client is promised to be placed central, but his interests have to be weighed against the interests of many other stakeholders. When a bank employee chooses to terminate a credit will a client willingly admit that such a decision was in his best interest?
The price of trust
An Oath may seem like a quick, inexpensive fix, but it comes with a seven figure price tag. eLearning environments, self-study courses, case studies and team dialogue sessions lead up to the big day. It takes about two hours per capita to complete the procedure. At an average of €33 pay an hour, for a total of 90,000 Dutch bankers, the price of this action bumps up to €6 million. The resources, time and logistics invested in the process are telling of the earnestness with which banks are willing to demonstrate compliance.
It takes a village to raise a culture
Instilling ethical and careful practice requires behavioural change. The orthodox jacket that this nation-wide change initiative is given, certainly works to ensure a great degree of engagement. The formality of signing on a dotted line with an audience, under the obliging eyes of a manager, add that degree of solemnity to the exercise. The Oath can hardly be taken lightly, so it may very well be the shortcut on the way to meaningful change. Only time will tell and for now, this I declare and promise:
“that I will perform my duties with integrity and care; that I will carefully consider all the interests involved in the company, i.e. those of the clients, the shareholders, the employees and the society in which the company operates; that in this consideration, I will give paramount importance to the clients’ interests; that I will comply with the laws, regulations and codes of conduct applicable to me; that I will observe confidentiality in respect of matters entrusted to me; that I will not abuse my knowledge; I will act in an open and accessible manner and I know my responsibilities to society; that I will endeavour to maintain and promote trust in the financial sector.
So help me God.”