According to cultural anthropologist Joris Luyendijk, London bankers live in an amoral universe,. He lived among and with bankers in the City of London for three years. He interviewed many of them and combined those interviews in a book. He tried to gain insight in how these bankers think about their gigantic bonuses themselves. Do they also wonder whether these bonuses are justified in times of crisis? The answer: no, not really. One thing became clear to him: there is not just one morality. Something that one culture or (part of) society considers correct and pursuable behavior is apparently reprehensible in another culture. This does not only apply to banks, but to the entire business community.

We used to know gentlemen of standing, as Bommel would say. Now we have, particularly in America and in Europe, fast guys in sharp suits. A company used to be ’solid’, just like its Management Board and Supervisory Board. Now the largest companies collapse, not seldom due to mismanagement, greed, and failing supervision. And it is all public and visible. We become cynical and are not even surprised anymore. Is this good or bad? Times change. In the Dutch language, we use the same word for earning and for deserving your money. In English, you say ’to earn’ or ’to deserve’. That is an important difference. In Dutch politics one has been surprised that the management board of a bank, that was saved from bankruptcy with billions of government support, received millions in bonuses. However, in politics it is not any different. The behavior of people who enrich themselves with a punishable act and even abuse their public office for that purpose is condemned, but also condoned and justified by many. This is something we now see in our Curaçao society as well.

I find it fascinating that companies increasingly worry about their reputational risk, but that this is not always accompanied by integrity rooted in the company. Socially desirable behavior (sustainable management, social responsibility) is sometimes induced by marketing considerations rather than by respect for human values and concern about the future of our planet. Google acts ’green’, but particularly thinks about the green color of the dollar. In the financial sector and other sections of the business community, the bonus for the management board is still sacred. “If I just reach my target, it is OK”. How these targets are reached is less important. Erst kommt das Fressen, dann komt die Moral, said Bertold Brecht. Ethical management is apparently not a target by itself.

Yet it is crucial, in my opinion, to regularly wonder in the entire company or organization whether the morality you propagate corresponds with the company culture. For this purpose, you have to ask soft questions and tough directors often do not like that. Questions such as ’What do we actually stand for? What do we think about our management deep down in our hearts? Is it really ethical?’ Short-term success does not say much about that. Long-term stability does.

Do you have a question about corporate governance yourself? Please e-mail it to governance@ekvandoorne.com and perhaps your question will be discussed in the next blogpost.

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