Responsible Business Lecture: Joris Luyendijk – Swimming with Sharks: my journey into the world of bankers

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Joris Luyendijk led Alliance Manchester Business School’s Responsible Business lecture series on Thursday 21 January, presenting Swimming with Sharks, an interesting insight into the controversial world of banking.

Joris was thrown into the world of bankers in the midst of the financial crash. During this time, he was asked by the Guardian to write a financial blog which provided a unique outsider’s perspective on the banking industry.

Joris started his Guardian blog in 2008, believing that there was a disproportionate amount of content and analysis in the financial pages that were written by outsiders for outsiders.  Joris decided to use his training as an anthropologist to access the minds and behaviours of bankers and their industry.  His ambition was to try and delve into the human side of the industry, explore the reasons behind the bankers’ actions and reveal how they became how they became the ‘monsters’ of society.

For his blog, Joris interviewed over 200 bankers in the middle of the financial crash, reaching out for a different perspective that readers did not previously have access to.  The blog received instant success and Joris himself was surprised by the insight he was able to gather from bankers who were surprisingly keen to talk about the situation.

In his lecture, Joris revealed the main findings from his many interviews which have formed the basis for his popular Guardian blog and which are now presented in his new book, Swimming with Sharks.

One of the first points Joris made was around the element of fear those within the industry felt as the banks came crashing down in 2008.  He told stories of employees calling their families to ensure their assets were safe and to warn of what was to come; there was genuine fear for their livelihoods.

It was from this first realisation, and from his first meetings, that Joris realised that although some of these employees were unsavoury characters, they were still human.  The people he was interviewing were not monsters, but more like maniacs, addicted to work.

Joris detailed in his lecture that he realised that those who contributed to the financial crash were neither moral nor immoral, but were amoral; if the acts that they were committing were not illegal, they would happily pursue them, despite the ethical implications.

It is this amorality that Joris found to be the defining attribute for those working in the banking industry – they were able to separate their own, personal judgements with work activity, and it was this approach that was considered as professionalism within the industry.  Ethics were based upon what the law allowed, not on personal moral judgement.

Within his interviews, Joris came into contact with those who were not at the forefront of the financial crash, but were equally as important.  He spoke to those responsible for risk assessment within the industry and in doing this found that they had been stripped of their power to steer any decisions.

When banking became publicly listed in the 1980s, bankers stopped being personally liable for any issues within the work. They no longer had stakes in the bank, so it wasn’t their money that was at risk anymore.  Therefore, risk management moved further and further down the chain of command and respect.

It was this change in structure within the industry that was the catalyst for the downfall of the industry in 2008.  And it is this structure that remains in the banking world.  Joris posed the question of how governments should deal with the structural and cultural problem still prevalent in banking today.

He questioned whether globalisation can be democratic and, more specifically to the UK, asked: are we a country with banks, or banks with a country?

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Alliance Manchester Business School has a global reputation for innovative and influential teaching and research, which impacts business on a local, national and international level. We call this Original Thinking Applied.

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