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Study finds 'banker's oath' could spur honesty

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Study finds 'banker's oath' could spur honesty
Photo: Joseph Barrak/AFP
21:07 CET+01:00
Banks could change a business culture that “favours dishonest behaviour" by requiring their employees to take a professional oath of honesty and training programs in ethics, researchers from the University of Zurich say.

In an article published this week in Nature, economists from the university said that changing the culture in the banking industry could help improve its “battered image”.

Employees of Swiss banks have recently been implicated in foreign exchange and interest rate rigging cases, as well as those for aiding tax evasion, among other scandals.

The economists’ research found that while bank employees are not more dishonest than those in other industries, “occupational norms” encourage them to behave dishonestly.

By studying 200 bankers, 128 recruited from a large international bank and 80 from other banks, the researchers were able to draw this conclusion.

The bankers were divided into two groups and required to complete a task that would allow them to increase their income by $200 if they behaved dishonestly.

In one group, the participants were reminded through questions of their “occupational role and the associated behavioural norms”.

Members of the other group were reminded of their “non-occupational role” and the associated norms.

The result was that the first group, where their roles as bankers were stressed, behaved significantly more dishonestly.

A similar study was conducted with employees from other industries but individuals in groups where their occupational roles were highlighted did not act any more dishonestly than those who roles outside work were emphasized.

“Our results suggest that the social norms in the banking sector tend to be more lenient towards dishonest behavior and thus contribute to the reputational loss in the industry,” Michel Maréchal, professor for experimental economic research, said in a statement issued by the university.

Maréchal is one of the authors of there study along with Ernst Fehr and Alain Cohn, who recently joined the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago as a postdoctoral scholar.

The researchers said that social norms that are implicitly more lenient towards dishonesty are “problematic” because public trust in bank employees’ behaviour is crucial for the long-term stability of the financial services industry.

“The banks could encourage honest behaviour by changing the industry’s implicit social norms,” Cohn is quoted as saying.

“Several experts and supervisory authorities suggest, for example, that bank employees should take a professional oath, similar to the Hippocratic oath for physicians.”

Introducing such an oath, along with ethical training and “appropriate financial incentives” could “lead bank employees to focus more strongly on the long-term, social effects of their behaviour instead of concentrating on their own short-term gains.”

The article, Business culture and dishonesty in the banking industry, appeared in the November 19th issue of Nature.

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