Something that I’ve wanted to dive into was anything remotely surrounded by business. The reason why is because of a chart I came across last year in one of my business prerequisite courses. This chart revealed statistics of both the most trusted and least trusted occupations in the United States. I found it interesting because the field my classmates and I that were entering is one that isn’t necessarily trusted by the general public (at least statistically).It was interesting to see what society generally perceived of people who work in business so I thought I should explore this through Popular Culture. Something that comes up in business is ethics and how it presents itself culturally through some events that have happened in the past. Even though people of business are one of the least trusted occupants, an effort to take business ethics seriously is usually put into place through a code of ethics. While researching, I kept in mind of the probability of the perception of people who work in business changing after the Great Recession of 2008 because I also wanted to see if that affected the perception at all. With what I have learned, it seems that the field of business must earn societies’ trust through its actions with consistency because there is and always has been unethical activity in the past as well as learning that there are businesses trying to have a good relationship with the public.
Portrayal in Popular Culture
A recent film by Martin Scorsese and Paramount Pictures probably presents the most explicit adventure and activities accomplished by any boss for a company with The Wolf of Wall Street. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort, is an aspiring stock trader that desires some of the finer things in life as well as building something great with his colleagues. From the ground up, he starts his own company with a partner titled “Stratton Oakmont” selling phony shares disguised as a reputable firm. Stratton Oakmont makes news and the company continues to grow.
As Belfort and colleagues get richer, they go through a wild adventure of drugs, prostitutes, and other shenanigans. Following Belfort, he goes through a divorce after having an affair with his wife, takes expensive drugs that no one has ever heard of, and works around with other “crooked” bankers and lawyers to keep him away from prison as he opens a Swedish bank account under a relative’s name to keep some of his money away from authorities. Eventually his firm does go through a downfall from the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission) and FBI (Federal Beauru-Investigation). Belfort even admits that majority of his firm’s operations were illegal and yet he continued (Scorsese, 2013).
The success of the film generated some news since it was entertaining for the audience but also brought up a discussion from the public asking if people who work in business can be trusted. While looking at this question, I thought about the perspective of what society thinks about people who work in positions like this.
While researching, I found a study that rates occupations in the U.S. based off a survey where respondents rate the ethical standards of some occupations which was very similar to the chart mentioned earlier from my business class. This was from Gallup, a website that dedicates itself to complete surveys to present information. This particular survey was done in November 2012. The bottom thirteen occupations consisted of jobs that involved anything related to congress, banking, and business while the top three (rated with higher ethical standards) were pharmacists, medical doctors, and engineers.
This gives me an idea of what occupants are more trusted compared to others. Pharmacists and medical doctors are generally occupants that are supposed to take care of others so maybe it is not too surprising that they could have a higher ethical rating from the survey respondents compared to the bottom thirteen which contain bankers, cars sales people, members of congress, senators, and business executives which have really low ratings for ethical standards.
So after watching a film like The Wolf of Wall Street where Jordan Belfort and his company committed unethical acts that included ripping off people with selling phony stock; then this study does not seem too surprising when you see stockbrokers, business executives, and bankers given very low scores for trust and ethical standards. This does give a hint showing that people generally do care about what goes on in the workplace. Good and bad.
Does the Public Care About Ethics in the Workplace?
I started wondering if customers care at all by a company’s operations and if they do care about the ethical standards they impose. A study that I ran into while researching pertained to whether or not the ethical standards affect their decision to purchase a product or service. University of Arkansas professor, Elizabeth Creyer in 1997, did that study. Creyer conducted a survey to see whether some form of the public cares about a company’s actions in Arkansas. She gave a survey slip to parents at an elementary school providing a rating along with questions. Some notes that I found while reading her study were:
- Ethicality of a firm’s behavior is an important consideration during the purchase decision
- Ethical corporate behavior is expected
- They will reward ethical behavior by a willingness to pay higher prices for that firm’s product
- Although they may buy from an unethical firm, they want to do so at lower prices which, in effect, punishes the unethical activities.
What I have found when I read this study was that consumers genuinely care about a company’s actions and it can affect their buying decisions. If a company can be proven to be ethical then they might just be rewarded with justified pricing if that is why their product or service costs a bit more than the competition. If it is known that, they are not very ethical then consumers rather expect cheaper prices. Knowing this is interesting because it acknowledges that customers are aware of a company’s actions and though they might still purchase anything from that company, they are aware. To me, this shows that no matter what the product, there might be a sense of distrust between the customer and the company.
An example of a film that shows an ill relationship between someone who was affected negatively by a sale of a share from a stockbroker was Uwe Boll’s 2013 film: Assault on Wall Street. Boll wanted to present a film through the perspective of a victim of the 2008 financial crisis who pretty much lost everything. The main character was a security guard who had a terminally ill wife and needed some money. He was advised from a stockbroker to purchase a share that was already introduced earlier in the film to fail since a manager from that firm wanted to get rid of that particular share and wanted all employees to sell it. The security guard purchases the share and ends up losing a lot of money. His wife commits suicide through guilt and his house is foreclosed. The security guard then turns into an assassin and goes on a secret spree to kill those who were behind the scandal as the media becomes aware of the failing shares. Boll wanted his audience to be people who were affected by the Great Recession of 2008 and he did study the Great Recession for this film (Boll, 2013).
After the 2008 recession, there seems to be an increase in the negative portrayal of bankers, executives, and pretty much, anyone working in finance. That reveals itself with these films and with support from the survey from earlier, gives a cumulative sense that society does not give its full trust to those occupants.
A popular film that I wanted to include that was released before the recession was Gabriele Muccino’s The Pursuit of Happyness from 2006, two years before the recession. In this film, an aspiring stockbroker who made a bad investment tries to get a position at a firm in New York City all while taking care of his son and going through some everyday challenges. Because of the bad investment, Chris Gardner (the father) and his son are homeless and every day they try to find a place to stay in a shelter and are constantly running around either for the bus or whenever Chris tries talking to a colleague or client. Chris goes through some training for a position at a firm he wants to work for and throughout the film, you see Chris behave very politely to his colleagues and clients and is able to do well enough to get that position he desired and became a respectable stockbroker in New York. In real life Chris becomes a millionaire and a motivational speaker.
This film is different from the other two in the sense that it doesn’t show a lot of unethical activity while he is working for his firm. Gardner works hard as he is able to work well with some high profile clients that impresses his eventual bosses. A question that comes into mind while looking at these three films is that would another film like The Pursuit of Happyness, a film that presents a positive portrayal of people who work hard in business ever be produced after the recession? I believe it could if there is a story like Chris Gardner’s where he did have to overcome some adversary.
In reality, businesses are now more than ever trying to gain the trust of customers by advertising and implementing practices that supports their code of ethics in the workplace. I came across an article by David K. Williams, the CEO of Fishbowl Inventory which is a company based in Utah that produces inventory management software (Williams). As someone who works in business he understands that an important aspect of business that is hard to measure is trust. He brings up that the relationships created with his customers matter to his company’s success, which is based off trust. When there is a healthy and lively environment in his business, completing difficult tasks and earning trust from customers does not become an issue. Some traits that he wants his employees to have are:
- Being loyal to each other
- Seek to understand instead of judge
- Take issues directly to the source
- Express genuine appreciation with everyone
- Help others with critical tasks, employees or clients, “We’re all in this together”
This to me shows that businesses are trying to build relationships that involves loyalty and trust with customers, which doesn’t match what popular culture makes of this portrayal. A famous example of another company would be Google Inc. where the first line on their code of ethics is “Don’t be evil” which then became their model. Not all companies, but some are trying to represent themselves well to the public.
With what I’ve learned, it seems that generally the field of business must earn societies’ trust through its actions with consistency. I say with consistency because having a track record of ethical standards taken seriously is a way to help change the perception. Preventing unethical activity constantly in the workplace is a good start and it will take some time to change the perception of the public. What I’ve also learned is that people do care about what is going on in the workplace in all businesses. In addition, some businesses do care about what the public thinks because it is beneficial for both parties to have trust established.
Assault On Wall Street. Dir. Uwe Boll. Lynn Peak Productions. 2013. DVD.
Creyer, Elizabeth H. “The Influence of Firm Behavior on Purchase Intention: Do Consumers Really Care About Business Ethics?” Journal of Consumer Marketing 1997: 421-432.
Scott, A.O. When Greed was Good (And Fun). 24 December 2013. 6 November 2016.
The Pursuit of Happyness. Dir. Gabriele Muccino. Overbrook Entertainment. 2006. DVD.
The Wolf of Wall Street. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Paramount Pictures. 2013. DVD.
Williams, David K. The Most Valuable Business Commodity. 20 June 2013. 4 November 2016.