Twenty years ago, I worked in large finance organisations in Australia and overseas, ever since I have been fascinated with the industry’s culture. This fascination has not dulled as the finance industry is critical for the flourishing of society; the finance industry is also the source of media reports asking what type of culture would charge dead people fees for no service, or enable Philippino children to be exploited to make a profit from money laundering activity?

Decisions made by directors in tall buildings with impressive views, have a very real impact on customers and staff at the middle and bottom of the hierarchy. The Australian Royal Commission (Commission) hearings relayed stories of fourth generation, suicidal farmers being driven off their land so city bankers could get a bonus. There was also the story of a blind pensioner about to lose her home because she trusted a finance worker who had forged her signature. First Generation Australians were sold dodgy funeral insurance by people using high pressure sales tactics and gamblers were fed credit cards, fueling their addiction. It’s not surprising the Commission labelled the industry “dishonest and greedy.” Still, directors of these organisations state they are committed to corporate sustainability, which considers economic fairness, the environment, and good social outcomes.

The Commission exposed stories of staff trying to speak up on unethical behaviour but being told to, “temper your sense of justice.” My personal experience has been there are many good and caring people working in the industry. My research has found it is not psychologically safe for staff to speak up, even though there are whistleblower policies. Participants in the research who work in large finance organisations shared the Commission was not going to change their day-to-day work, because the Commission findings were about other organisations behaving badly, not them. The research I conducted corroborates with post-Commission media stories of ongoing systemic misconduct to do with sexual harassment of staff, inappropriate fees, and the wrong products being sold to vulnerable people. In short, culture has not changed post-Commission.

Since 1893 there have been compliance investigations into the Australian finance industry. These technical investigations continually find problematic cultural issues, yet, there has been minimal cultural research into the industry. My research is different, it looks at the industry from a cultural lens considering not just the economic, but the social and environmental too. I’ve developed and tested a rigorous, multi-dimensional corporate sustainability-organisational culture model. This model holds up a mirror to directors, the guardians of the organisation’s culture, to see how their values are embedded (or not) at different levels of subculture (not just the PR department).

Doing right: living your values, may motive some directors to take action on culture; others may act to avoid bad media reports. There are many benefits for engaging in deep cultural investigation; one being it identifies some of the “why” and “how” areas are underperforming. Understanding and addressing the root cause of internal cultural problems serves to benefit staff who in-turn care for millions of customers life savings. The alternate is ‘business as usual,’ masking issues, only to see problems arise again and again–there is a reason only 21% of Australians believe banks have their best interest at heart.

Recent feedback I’ve received from judges of my research and teaching is that I’m “passionate;” and they’re right. For 27 years I have volunteered with people experiencing homelessness so I am aware the decisions people make in tall buildings today, and the formation of students who will be making decisions tomorrow, have a very real impact on vulnerable people.

If you or a loved one is experiencing distress call Lifeline: 13 11 14.


Clare Burns is a PhD candidate and sessional academic in the Department of Business Strategy and Innovation. Within the last month Clare was announced winner of Griffith University’s 3MT, (Three Minute Thesis competition) and the British Academy of Management Conference Best Poster Award and received a highly commended teaching citation recognition from the Dean, Learning and Teaching. In addition to her professional career, Clare is an active volunteer of Rosies Friends on the Street.