Banking, bastards and the trolley dilemma

People generally intend to do good, but when faced with complex decisions, the outcomes are often ethically questionable, writes Square Holes' Jason Dunstone.

The Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry is likely of little surprise to most people. “All banks are bastards” is a generalisation that most have suspected, or known, for a long time. The royal commission confirms the obvious.

Yet, likely no one sets out to do wrong. It is far more complicated than that.

The trolley dilemma is an experiment used to illustrate the challenges in making ethical decisions:

  1. You are driving a runaway tram
  2. The brakes are not working and there is no way to stop it
  3. Straight ahead there are five people who will die if you go forward
  4. Or, you can switch tracks, one person would be hit and die
  5. Would you go forward and kill five or switch tracks and kill one? Why?
  6. What if the one person was a loved one or leading thinker / artist?
  7. What if the five were bad people, e.g. the KKK or known murders?
  8. You are no longer driving the tram, but on a bridge, where there is a fat man looking over. If you pushed him, he would fall in front of the tram, stop it, die, but save the other six people. What would you do?
  9. What if the man on the bridge was an evil, known villain?
  10. What would you do?

You can read more on the trolley dilemma here, or by watching the fascinating series of ethical justice videos ‘What’s the Right Thing to Do?’ by Harvard’s Michael Sandel. (The trolley dilemma is widely used when considering situations such as what driverless cars should do.)

In a corporate setting, the trolley dilemma could be translated to decision makers. Typically the question becomes: ‘what is best for the company (or even individual)?’

The response? Maximise profit (the basic premise of business throughout time), while potentially sacrificing groups of customers, staff and/or other stakeholders. It is rarely win-win in business.

As outgoing NAB Chairman Dr Ken Henry admitted: “The gap, as I see it, is that NAB does aspire to do the right thing by every customer every time and everywhere and we’re a long way from that. We’ve got an absolute mountain to climb in NAB in order to achieve our aspiration for the bank.”

In the past, the big four banks’ advertising spin has tried hard to tell a far more customer-focused business story than reality.

[Click to enlarge]

Our politicians are often accused of eroding trust through suspect antics, and other leaders of large and smaller enterprises find themselves making unpopular decisions.

It is hard being a leader. Having an ability to make hard, unpopular and even ethically questionable decisions can be important.

Importantly, studies illustrate that our bankers are more trusted than other professions such as politicians, real estate agents and advertising people. (More: UK US Australia). While we are observing declining levels of trust in our leaders, a lack of perceived honesty is largely allowed by the community.

Most people do not set out to be bad. 

People generally intend to do good, but when faced with dilemmas they need to make complex and often quick decisions, with conflicting outcomes. Not everyone wins, and often the decisions that need to be made by corporate and government leaders, and even ourselves, are not simple. They are often counter to how others in a similar situation would have hypothetically responded.

So, how do we deal with making more ethical decisions moving forward?

Like the trolley dilemma, leaders make decisions that advantage and disadvantage some customers, staff and stakeholders over others, and at times they sacrifice groups of individuals by pushing them off the non-literal bridge – just like the ‘fat man’ innocently minding his own business.

It comes back to placing the role of ethics towards customers, staff and other stakeholders at the forefront of decision making along with financial and other key metrics. Embedding solid principles of ethical decision making, beyond legal obligation, across organisational cultures, in boards and c-suites.

Hopefully one of the key outcomes of the Banking and Aged Care royal commissions is that customers and the wider community are more aware that there are rights and standards of ethics to expect, and if their current providers are behaving badly, more empathetic, responsible and truly customer focused competitors are ready and waiting to offer a better product or service, with more ethical values based cultures and guidelines.

Please be truly customer and human centric. It is ethically right.

Jason Dunstone is the founder and managing director of consumer insight and market research serviceSquare Holes. This post first appeared here.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.