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We all pay the price when businesses break our trust

Big businesses must clean up their own behaviour before they start telling others what to do.

It's remarkable the way the Business Council of Australia constantly lectures us on the "reform" we should be accepting to improve our economic performance (and, purely by chance, their profits), but never seems to lecture its big-business members on their manifest need to "reform" their own standards of behaviour.

Among its most profitable members would have to be the four big banks. But the litany of scandals over their bad treatment of customers never seems to end.

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The latest was CommInsure's denial of legitimate life insurance claims, but there's also been ANZ's alleged manipulation of a key commercial interest rate and the Commonwealth Bank's bad financial planning advice that lost money for many customers.

Now the chairman of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, Greg Medcraft, has joined Australian Prudential Regulation Authority boss Wayne Byers in demanding the finance industry fix its corporate culture.

Illustration: Kerrie Leishman
Illustration: Kerrie Leishman 

"Time and again, we have seen firms blaming [behaviour] on a few bad apples driving bad outcomes for consumers, rather than taking responsibility by looking more closely at their organisation and implementing the necessary changes to address the cause of the problem," Medcraft said on Monday.

"At the end of the day, you need to have a culture that your customers can believe in."

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The captains of finance have not reacted well to the bureaucrats' admonition. David Gonski complained about the corporate regulator being the "culture police", while someone from the Institute of Company Directors offered the uncomprehending advice that corporate culture could not be imposed by law.

It would be wrong to focus only on the bad behaviour of the banks, of course. There have been other instances from other industries. Take 7-Eleven's underpaying of foreign workers.

Or take the many notorious cases of businesses rorting government subsidy schemes in ceiling insulation, childcare and vocational education and training.

It's possible what we're seeing is merely greater exposure of the bad behaviour of big business thanks to a surge in business investigative journalism, with Fairfax Media's Adele Ferguson at its head.

But I've been in and around businesses since I left school 50 years ago, and I think bad corporate behaviour is definitely worse than it was. As executive remuneration has headed for the stratosphere, so the willingness to exploit customers and staff has grown.

But why? One reason is the rise of a more fundamentalist approach to economics. "Economic rationalism" has prompted much deregulation, privatisation and outsourcing, which has made competition a lot more intense in many industries.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, but as managers have experienced greater pressure to perform – as it's become harder to keep profits high and rising – they've passed the pressure on to staff and customers.

Economic fundamentalism is both a product of the greater materialism of our age and a cause of it, with all its emphasis on monetary values and view of "labour" as just another resource to be exploited along with other raw materials.

What's worse is that economic fundamentalism has had the effect of sanctifying selfishness. When I put my own interests ahead of other people's, I'm not being greedy or self-centred or antisocial; I'm just being "rational".

One effect of the greater pressure to perform is the present "metrics" fad – the obsession with measuring aspects of the firm's performance, then using those measures to improve performance, such as by setting targets based on "key performance indicators".

What the KPI obsession is saying is: just get results; how you get them is of lesser interest. I'd lay money that the reason people at CommInsure were knocking back legitimate claims was they were being encouraged to do so by KPIs or other "performance incentives". (That's why it's dishonest for people at the top to blame "a few bad apples".)

Most people's sense of what is acceptable, ethical behaviour is determined by what they believe their peers are doing. If they do it, it's ethical for me to do it; if they don't do it, maybe I should feel guilty about it.

The trouble is, studies show that adults, like children, often harbour exaggerated impressions of how many others are doing it.

Social conformity (aka "culture") is such a powerful influence that it's always been hard for people to follow their own "moral compass". With the decline of religious adherence, it's harder even to have one.

The Business Council and its members ought to be a lot more worried about the decline in their standards of behaviour than they seem to be.

One fundamental the economic fundamentalists keep forgetting is that market economies run best on widespread trust: mutual trust between management and staff, and between businesses and their customers.

Allow declining standards of behaviour to erode trust and the economy suffers. Customers become harder to persuade, argue more with counter staff, are surlier with call-centre staff and more inclined to take their business elsewhere. They resist "upselling".

With less trust you have to waste a lot of money on increased security in its many forms. And governments react by multiplying laws and legal requirements.

When so many companies demonstrate their contempt for other taxpayers by the way they manipulate the tax they pay – their ethic is that if it's (barely) legal, it's ethical – it becomes much harder for governments to get voter support for cutting the rates of those taxes.

Who knew?

Ross Gittins is the Herald's economics editor.

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