“I think that the U.S. law-enforcement regulatory authorities are going to be troubled by the results of this survey, but the U.K. ones will be particularly troubled,” says Jordan Thomas, a partner at Labaton Sucharow and the former assistant director at the Securities and Exchange Commission. “This is actually indicative of an industry.”
In the survey, 25 percent reported that they would engage in insider trading if there was a guaranteed $10 million payday at the end of the line and the chances of being arrested were nil. More troubling, those with less than 10 years of experience were twice as likely to say yes to this illegal payday. Overall, the U.K. scored worse than the U.S. on ethical measures ranging from knowledge of wrongdoing to insider trading. Additionally, 10 percent of all respondents reported having felt pressure at their company to violate the law or compromise ethical standards.
Ann Tenbrunsel, a professor of business ethics at University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, is a co-author of the report. Her research covers ethical breakdowns in corporations, looking specifically at why they happen. She says that despite significant efforts from a regulatory perspective—such as SEC fines and the Dodd-Frank Act—and money spent on ethics training, well-intentioned reform efforts just aren’t producing results yet.
“To me, as a researcher in this area, it says what we’re doing isn’t working to the extent that we wished it was,” says Tenbrunsel. “People seem more aware of the regulation, but that hasn’t necessarily impacted behavior. Then being aware of regulation isn’t enough.”
The report also looked at the factors preventing employees from reporting illegal or unethical behavior. Both Tenbrunsel and Thomas believe that whistleblowing isn’t just difficult to do in the culture of Wall Street—it’s become increasingly harder in the age of gag orders. A quarter of respondents in the survey earning $500,000 or more reported that they signed a confidentiality agreement that prohibits them from reporting illegal activities to the authorities. “The thing that blows my mind is that, as a former DOJ and SEC law-enforcement attorney, seeing the proliferation of secrecy agreements and policies that prevent people from reporting wrongdoing,” says Thomas.
While the SEC whistleblower program is anonymous, with monetary rewards, the fear of retaliation and blacklisting discourages people from coming forward. Additionally, workers in the financial-services industry don’t yet trust that companies will protect whistleblowers.
“Essentially, if you look at the things that are impacting people's ability to report, you have policies, agreements, retaliation, which silences other whistleblowers down the road,” says Thomas. “And then if you also see the statistics about pressure to engage in unethical illegal behavior … it's a sad state of affairs.”