You’d have thought with discussion covering topics such as these, I may have been attending an evening talk hosted by special branch or forensic psychologists . Instead I was at a City Values Forum event entitled Business Ethics: From Crisis to Reform, arranged by Tomorrow’s Company promoting integrity in business in the City of London.

The main speaker, Professor Ted Roosevelt Malloch, highlighted findings from his new book The End of Ethics and the Way Back. The discussion seemed to keep returning to the allure of vice. Mostly alluring, it seemed to men since no women were featured in the "powerpoint perp walk" – a series of slides of disgraced financiers. I am sure it wouldn’t take much digging to come up with a few famous female fraudsters but can’t imagine any operating at this scale. The billions scammed or lost would be more than enough to pay off quite a few global banks regulatory fines for the coming decade. The perpetrators certainly reflected characters from Babiak & Hare’s research – Snakes in Suits – the psychopaths roaming company corridors.

When it was argued that ethics had been dumbed down to compliance, did this mean that companies ethical performance was limited to ‘what would keep us out of jail’ as opposed to doing the right thing? How prevalent was corporate culture that was truly based on shared values and integrity? It wasn’t long before gender was raised as a way forward. This doesn’t mean women should be taking over, it is all about balance. Instead it is around positive female gender traits, such as humility, listening, empathy, collaboration, fairness etc being encouraged in the governance and management of organisations by both sexes.

It has been evidenced again and again that hardwired models of ‘tough guys’ in the C-suite and board room can bring firms to the brink of failure or in many cases to extinction. Enron, Lehman, Bear Stearns gone virtually overnight. This side of the pond, I can’t see Fred Goodwin’s leadership style having aligned with humility or listening. So things got shakier and shakier at RBS because of fear generated by the tone from the top, till near collapse and then the bailout. That’s every UK taxpayer paying the price of poor ethics, while RBS limps on.

Social changes means society now has a view on and expectations about equality and diversity. That is why there is a great need for changes at the top. Research in this field is growing and has led Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women to say "Amidst all the challenges and opportunities in our world today, one fact is unassailable – countries and companies with higher gender equality enjoy higher levels of growth and performance." The UN Global Compact is currently featuring the Women Empowerment Principles and CEOs everywhere are affirming their value.

It is not just women who bring these positive attributes to the table. After all, I was listening to a panel of 5 men who all spoke to the value of a conscious capitalism, the importance of personal character, virtue and ‘firms of endearment’. Let’s hope that their rhetoric is practiced and spread and they seek to champion the women they work with. As a society all of us, men and women together, have a responsibility in ensuring our companies can be trusted in role-modeling good values and calling to account those who don’t.

Tanya’s previous blog post

Waking up to ethics: horsemeat and derivatives