Stephen Hester, The Bonus and CSR
The President/Prime Minister inherits a 83% public stake in one of the banks that collapsed through greed and stupidity in the economic crisis. With it comes a newish Chief Exec, Stephen Hester, a board of directors and multi-million pound salaries and bonuses. Each year these make the headlines to much grumbling but no outrage until this year when the public, now feeling a tight squeeze on their own incomes from the Prime Minister’s austerity programme, start to get angry and the Opposition starts to land a few telling blows. Sensing a threat, the bank’s board of directors threaten to resign if they are over-ruled – arguing that Hester has been doing a good job and should be paid what was agreed.
The Prime Minister has a big dilemma – stick to the contract and take a big political hit, or sacrifice the contract (if he can) to send out the message that everyone is in it together, risking disruption at the bank which could cost the taxpayer more than the bonus. As he mulls on these options, Mr Hester finally decides that it is not worth £1m (he has plenty of those) to become the most hated man in the country and says he will voluntarily give up the shares. The PM sighs a big sigh of relief. Credits roll.
There was another story in the press last week which made fewer ripples, but was just as interesting from an ethics point of view. David Harnett, boss of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, accused people who pay domestic cleaners and builders cash in hand of encouraging tax evasion. That’s the very same David Harnett who made ‘sweetheart deals’ with big corporations allowing them to pay less tax than they should – at a cost to the Treasury of some £20bn. So it is OK for big business to dodge tax – as long as the cleaner on minimum wage doesn’t.
I could make lots of political points here, but the issue that is most relevant for this blog is the difference between the individual and the organisation when it comes to responsibility. We talk about corporate social responsibility, but what we are really talking about is interaction between the individual ethics of a group of people. One of the craftiest ways to hide an unethical decision is to make it by committee – and remuneration committees have been blamed for the wage inflation which has UK directors’ pay rising much faster than stockmarket results would suggest they should. Likewise HMRC is clearly tougher on individuals than they are on organisations – cleaners don’t get sweetheart deals – but why let the big guys off?
At the end of the day, organisations are made of people and those people must take responsibility for their own decisions – as Stephen Hester has belatedly realised. Maybe the term Corporate Social Responsibility is a little misleading as corporations cannot have ethics – instead we need more Executive Social Responsibility.