Magazine

The culture of behaving badly

Office workers

There's a new type of scandal that erupts out of an open secret, whether it's MPs fiddling expenses, journalists hacking phones, or bankers fixing rates. Everyone's at something, or almost everyone - but under the glare of publicity, it looks bad...

You can just picture them now, in the classic "caught rotten" pose. They wear an expression on their face as if Libor wouldn't melt in their mouth, staring innocently at the financial investigator.

The scamps.

A conversation ensues.

Investigator: Erm... what... what are you doing?

Malfeasant Bank: Nothing. Just some stuff.

Investigator: Well STOP IT! You know it's wrong.

Bank: But everyone else is doing it...

Investigator: If everyone jumped off a cliff would you follow them? NOW STOP IT I SAID!

Bank (as share-price falls off a cliff): But it's part of our culture.

Culture is a powerful word. It calls to mind a wide range of things: a night at the theatre; standing on a village green watching people dressed in vegetation dancing around a pole; staring blankly at the wall of a gallery struggling to understand what the artist means by a piece entitled Coat Hanger and Spatula.

On the Vanuatu island of Malekula (a name which apparently means pain in the backside) it was until recently, the culture to bind infants' skulls to alter the shape of their heads. Cone-shaped skulls were said to be a sign of higher social status.

When the shenanigans of Barclays traders and GSK sales reps was revealed, what was said to be a culture then looked a lot like cheating, bribery and fraud.

Image caption A quick thumb-rub and that spoon will be clean enough for the guest...

However let's not forget these are human beings and are probably not bad people. They were just operating within a culture where the pressure was on to achieve targets. If they did their job, they got praise, kudos and wads of slightly stained lucre.

On the other hand, if they muttered something about ethics and said "Won't somebody please think of the children?" eventually someone had a chat.

"Look mate, don't get us wrong, we LOVE that you care about the 'rules' as you call them… but we've got a business to run. So maybe if you could have a little think about how much you like lots of money and come back to us, that would be great? K-bye."

Read the Financial Services Authority judgement about Barclays and in particular the transcripts of the conversations between traders and submitters (the team who set the rates). It's an insight into their daily life. They are workers like all of us. They have bosses and clients to please.

"My NYK are screaming at me about an unchanged 3m libor," says Trader B. Who among us wouldn't be tempted to bend the rules if they were being screamed at - especially by an NYK, the most unforgiving of all the YKs? Under that kind of pressure, it's tempting to feel sorry for them.

We can all admit to gross irregularities under pressure - making tea for someone and, with not enough cutlery to go around, cleaning their spoon with a thumb.

At this very moment, there are some of you who have not washed your hands after the toilet. Some have even gone to great lengths to appear to have done so running the tap for a while and even putting on a hand-dryer. (Those people should not be on tea-making duty.)

But sympathy for the Barclays traders tends to ebb away as you read down and see statements like: "He's like, I think this is where it should be. I'm like, dude, you're killing us." And "Duuuude… whats up with ur guys 34.5 3m fix…tell him to get it up!!"

By the time you read another instance of the word "dude" you want the book thrown at them.

Yet even though they use the word "like" instead of "say", while reading about the minutiae of their working day one can't help but have a sneaking admiration for these testosterone-buoyed legends as they change the world with their "dude-ing" and rate fixing.

They must be conscious of the power themselves. Like drug firm sales-reps taking doctors to Las Vegas or journalists tapping phones, that authority must be addictive. The addiction to success and to exceeding yesterday's achievement eventually leads to chicanery.

That is why we need to look at other exciting enterprises to make sure that these same tendencies are not present or at least nipped in the bud.

The centre of the universe this week is Cern, where they're five-sigma certain they found the Higgs boson. Rightly, they were lauded all around the world - by many people who were five-sigma certain they had no idea what a Higgs boson does.

The scientists can't rest on their laurels forever though. The pressure will be on to deliver new discoveries, solve new mysteries - maybe even come up with another particle? In this atmosphere will irregularities start to arise?

One never wants to see a situation where emails from scientists are read out in court.

"My clients are screaming for a Higgs-futon and he's like no, it's only four-sigma. Can you help a brother out?"

"Cool, I can make a four look like a scribbly five."

"You're the man! I'm gonna get you a bottle of Bollinger."

It's time we scanned the Cern emails for use of the word "dude".

You can hear Colm O'Regan every Saturday on In The Balance, on the BBC World Service, at 11:00 GMT