Excuse me, are you a crook?

It’s a word we’re used to seeing almost daily now—mi-selling. This week it was MPs lambasting high street banks and the financial regulator for failing to settle thousands of claims from small businesses. The victims had been “mis-sold” interest rate swops.

When it comes to unethical business behaviour it’s time we stopped using anodyne words. When previously trusted financial organisations proceed to swindle large numbers of people out of their money, resulting for some in business failure, talking of “mis-selling” is wrong.

An initial review by the financial regulator found virtually all (90%) interest rate hedging products had been “mis-sold. Putting is more simply, most customers were swindled. Despite this, you’d be hard pressed to find any mainstream media daring to call the leaders in charge of these institutions that behaved this way: “crooks.”

Saying those who “mis-sell products or services” are crooks sounds drastic. Until someone has actually been convicted in a court of law it’s probably risky to do so. Take the senior senior leaders of the generally upright and still mainly admired Marks and Spencers.

Can these exalted executives be described as crooks, swindlers or worse? Well, it is now believed many of the over 200,000 households who get their gas and electricity through M&S Energy were misled over the savings being offered. The “misleading” or swindling went on for five years!

M&S years salesmen approached in-store shoppers to persuade them to switch supplier. Prime targets were allegedly older women, nicknamed ‘Gladys’. Whistle-blower evidence suggests staff used tricks to bamboozle clients into signing up.

To avoid further accusations of “mis-selling” and prompted by complaints, M&S has apparently banned its salesmen from signing up new customers in store.1

Also recently, over 50 payday lenders—apparently more than half the entire industry– abandoned their dubious trade when faced with the OFT watchdog demanding they “prove their business practices were “up to scratch, and they were acting responsibly.” Much kinder than saying “prove you’re not a crook.”2

The City watchdog taking over from the Financial Services Authority (FSA) says it will be clamping down hard on “abusive practices” in the payday loans sector. S  Abusive practices sounds so much less illegal than “criminal” or “unethical behaviour.”

Words or phrases making bad organisational behaviour sound somehow less—well criminal—are all too common. Try using the word “unethical” to many business leaders and watch eyes glaze over. Anyone concerned with ethics in business soon learns to adopt  more comfortable terms like “responsible” or “principled.”

Many businesses leaders are  aware they must restore their reputation for ethical behaviour in the face of mounting public concern. While no one may be calling them crooks—at least to their faces—the public has certainly shown loss of confidence in the pursuit of business profit.

So what’s to be done? As Barclays ‘Chairman Sir David Walker put it recently, there must be a relentless focus  “not  just on what is achieved but how it is done.” This is thankfully more robust language and does describe what an ethical business means—one that is as much concerned with the “how” as it is with the “what.”

1 Mis-selling was rife, insider claims, WHICH, 06 August 2013

2 Almost half of payday lenders quit the market rather than face OFT probe, R.R Straus, This is Money , 15 August 2013

3 Business turns for guidance to religion, B. Groom, FT October 25 2013

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