Banking culture promotes cheating: Research

The business culture in the banking industry weakens the will to be honest, according to a new study by a university in Switzerland, which states that a healthier attitude to the truth is crucial to restore the reputation of the sector.

"Social norms in the banking sector tend to be more lenient towards dishonest behavior and thus contribute to the reputational loss in the industry," Michel Maréchal, a professor for experimental economic research at the University of Zurich said in the accompanying press release on Wednesday.

The research - first published by Nature magazine this week - surveyed 128 employees from a large international bank another 80 from other assorted lenders. The bankers were split into two groups with both performing a simple quiz about their working and private lives.

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The first group were asked further questions about their daily working lives and then asked to perform ten coin flips. The coin tosses were unmonitored and the bankers were told they could earn money by flipping more heads than tails - up to $200 if they flipped a full sequence. The second group were quizzed about their home lives and hobbies and were then asked to perform the same coin flipping.

The results showed the second group posting a total of 51.6 percent heads and the first group reporting 58.2 percent heads. The same survey was recreated on other industries but the same 58.2 percent was never reached, leading Maréchal to believe that the bankers had been dishonest with their coin-tosses.

"The result was that bank employees in the experimental group, where their occupational role in the banking sector was made salient, behaved significantly more dishonestly," he said. He did however place one major caveat saying that bank employees are not more dishonest than employees in other industries, but that the business culture favored this dishonesty.

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The research comes hot on the heels of large settlements by five global banks regarding the alleged manipulation of the currency markets. Forex traders have been accused of coordinating their dealings with traders at other banks in an attempt to manipulate benchmark rates and gain profit.

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The forex scandal is just the latest in a long line of scandals in recent years with banks being hammered for their roles in the 2008 financial crisis. The revelations have also sparked debate between policymakers on the bonus payouts in the industry and whether they should be curbed.

Maréchal noted in his research this week that some are calling for banking employees to take a professional oath. In February this year Dutch statute was changed to make the country's 90,000 banking employees swear an oath - optionally to God - promising they will perform their duties with integrity. In June, think tank ResPublica published a report that argued that an oath would install higher levels of personal responsibility among bankers.

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Maréchal personally believes that this sort of practice could run alongside a corresponding training program in ethics and incentives.

"This could lead bank employees to focus more strongly on the long-term, social effects of their behavior instead of concentrating on their own, short-term gains," he said.