News in brief: Culture & Dishonesty

News in brief: Business culture and dishonesty in the banking industry

A recent research study shows that business culture in the banking industry favours dishonest behaviour. The influence of materialistic values in the financial sector and the specific norms, visions and expectations of its business culture encourage unethical behaviour. Measures such as ethics reminders or a professional Banking Oath should be promoted in order to restore trust as a key asset for the long-term stability of the financial industry.

Trust in others’ honesty is a fundamental component of the long-term performance of firms, industries, and even whole countries. But in recent years, there have often been cases of fraud in the banking industry, which have led to a considerable loss of image for banks. Are bank employees by nature less honest people? Or does the business culture in the banking sector favour dishonest behaviour? Contemporary commentators have attributed these scandals to the financial sector’s business culture but no scientific evidence supports this claim. New findings indicate that the business culture in the banking sector implicitly favours dishonest behaviour.

In a recent paper, Alain Cohn et al. provide an example of this in their report of an experiment conducted with the employees of a large international bank. The employees were randomly assigned to a treatment condition that increased the salience of their professional identity or to a control condition in which their professional identity was not made salient. After a short survey, all participants completed a task that would allow them to increase their income by up to USD 200 if they behaved dishonestly. The result was that bank employees in the experimental group, where their occupational role in the banking sector was made salient, behaved significantly more dishonestly.

The authors show that the bank employees behave honestly on average in a control situation, but become less honest after having been ‘primed’ to think about their professional identity. The study’s findings also substantiate current concerns about the influence of materialistic values in the banking sector and indicate that the professional identity prime may have increased dishonesty through an increase in materialistic values.

People’s confidence in the honesty of bank employees is a key asset for the long-term stability of the financial industry. The report’s results suggest that banks should encourage honest behaviours by changing the norms associated with their workers’ professional identity. For example, several experts and regulators have proposed that bank employees should take a professional oath analogous to the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. Such an oath, supported by ethics training, could prompt bank employees to consider the impact of their behaviour on society rather than focusing on their own short-term benefits. A norm change also requires that companies remove financial incentives that reward employees for dishonest behaviours. In addition, existing research suggests that ethics reminders may promote compliance with the honesty norm. These measures may be an important step towards fostering desirable and sustainable changes in business culture.

This researched was summarised by Carmen Fraile Perez
Carmen is an Associate at BBVA Representative Office in Australia, where she has been working for the past three years. She previously worked at the Spanish Trade Commission in Japan to support investment flows between Japan and Spain. She has an interest on how the global financial industry plays a fundamental role on community development and for a sustainable future.

For the research in its entirety, download the full research paper,

The Oath

  • Trust is the foundation of my profession.
  • I will serve all interests in good faith.
  • I will compete with honour.
  • I will pursue my ends with ethical restraint.
  • I will help create a sustainable future.
  • I will help create a more just society.
  • I will speak out against wrongdoing and support others who do the same.
  • I will accept responsibility for my actions.

In these and all other matters;
My word is my bond.

The Vision

A banking and finance industry that meets the community’s needs and has its full confidence thereby fulfilling its integral role in society.