And the beat goes on

Why is the business community beset by scoundrels, scandals and deception?

July 31, 2012

The business headlines of the last few weeks and months seems hauntingly familiar — only the names of the players and the dollar amounts have changed: MT Global, JP Morgan Chase, Barclays and Peregrine Financial Group. Hundreds of millions embezzled, the rigging of international interest rates, millions missing from customer accounts and billions lost due to faulty high-risk financial decisionmaking. According to a recent Gallup poll, only 21 percent of Americans have confidence in the banking system. A 2011 Harris poll revealed that 67 percent agreed with the statement: “Most people on Wall Street would be willing to break the law, if they believed they could make a lot of money and get away with it.” Moreover, 70 percent believed that people on Wall Street are “not as honest and moral as other people.”

As a student of business ethics, I have to tell you that these headlines no longer shock me. I’m getting used to them. I think we all are. I thought Enron set the benchmark for corporate, financial and personal cupidity and avarice. And then there was Bernie Madoff, AIG, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns!

So why, to paraphrase, in the immortal words of Sonny and Cher — does the beat go on? Why is the business community beset by scoundrels, scandals and example after example of deception, fraud and greed? Well, I don’t mean this to sound too theological, but I think it goes back to the very medieval notion that we are not perfect human beings. That we are in fact flawed by nature and susceptible to more than just a few of the "Seven Deadly Sins": Pride, Envy, Anger, Sloth, Greed, Gluttony, and Lust.

Let me be candid. I think it’s all about the money and playing the game. It’s about the power, pleasure and security that we think money can provide. But even more than money for the high rollers like Bernie Madoff, Jeff Skilling and Robert Diamond, it’s about the thrill of the game. The excitement of the risk. The emotional and intellectual pleasure of the challenge. It’s about the need to win, no matter what the odds. It’s about the palpable rush of knowingly breaking the rules. It’s about narcissistic illusions of invincibility. It’s about feeling smugly superior to those who don’t take chances. It’s about the arrogant certainty of one’s infallibility.

No matter what our best angelic aspirations, there will always be corruption in business and elsewhere. Why? Because as a species we are by nature corrupt. Or, to be less harsh, we are all easily tempted, and quick to succumb to the allure of power, celebrity and wealth!

Al Gini is a Professor of Business Ethics and Chairman of the Management Department in the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago.