Would you be more inclined to trust someone with your money if they solemnly swore they would handle it responsibly? And perhaps more importantly, would they actually stick to their vows?
A London-based think tank believes bankers should take a "bankers' oath," similar to the Hippocratic oath historically taken by physicians, to encourage professionalism and ethical standards in the banking industry.
In a report released yesterday, titled "Virtuous Banking: Placing ethos and purpose at the heart of finance," the non-partisan think tank ResPublica said regulatory reforms have thus far failed to fix the industry's tarnished reputation. Instead, it suggested a moral approach.
"As countless scandals demonstrate, virtue is distinctly absent from our banking institutions," Phillip Blond, director of ResPublica, said in a press release. "In order for us to have the banks we desperately need and the country deserves, bankers must recognize the good, do the good, and be good. The Bankers' Oath represents a remarkable opportunity to fulfill their proper moral and economic purpose, and finally place bankers on the road to absolution."
ResPublica suggests that such an honour code would require bankers to swear to conduct business in an ethical manner and to prioritize the needs of their customers.
A proposed version of the bankers' oath reads: "I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to the financial security and wellbeing of my customers, their families and the communities they reside in."
As ResPublica notes, similar oaths have been adopted elsewhere, particularly in areas where public confidence is lacking. For instance, the Bloomberg news service reported in February that Dutch banks had introduced an oath, requiring employees to pledge to "preserve and enhance confidence in the financial services industry." Graduates and students of Harvard Business School, meanwhile, have their own "MBA Oath," which includes, among other promises, the vow to "refrain from corruption, unfair competition or business practices harmful to society."
All are honourable promises. But whether those who take the oaths live up to them is another matter.
"People pledge allegiance to flags and all sorts of things, but it may or may not affect their behaviour," says Gini Graham Scott, a Lafayette, Calif.-based consultant specializing in business and work relationships, and author of The Truth About Lying: Why and How We All Do It and What to Do About It.
For some, she says, an oath may simply represent a token formality that doesn't really have much meaning. And people tend to lie more often in cultures that emphasize competition and monetary, materialistic values, Scott says.
Professional oaths may indeed succeed in improving public perception, says Susan Whitbourne, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. But since it's uncertain whether they actually change behaviour, she says the measure could give consumers a false sense of security.
"In fact, it actually gives [professionals] more licence to cheat because you think, 'Oh, well, they've taken this oath and now I can trust them," she says.