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Ethics, Schmethics: Bankers Identify Goldman Sachs as Most Admired Firm

For evidence of the yawning disconnect in values between Wall Street and Main Street, consider a recent poll assessing the bank for which financial pros most want to work. The winner, familiar to marine biologists everywhere: Goldman Sachs (GS).

The vampire squid ranked first as the most desirable place to hang your pinstripes, according to a survey of more than 1,300 bankers by The career website factored in prestige, firm culture, overall satisfaction, compensation and hours in producing its ranking, which listed only three Wall Street firms in the top 10 (see table below). Goldman came in first in terms of overall culture, employee training and quality of relationship with managers.

The survey was conducted from April to June, as Goldman's reputation was taking a beating amid heightened scrutiny of the company's role in the housing crisis. What does that suggest? For one, that bankers have fewer hang-ups about Goldman's ethics than do non-industry folks. Indeed, a casual review of the firm by financial workers on another job site suggests that qualities like integrity and decency don't begin to figure in the conversation about what makes for a good employer in banking.

In some ways, that's not so surprising. How many of us take into account a company's, or an industry's, ethics before accepting a job? If we did, Madison Avenue would be just another traffic-clogged throughway in Manhattan, while Big Tobacco would have to fill positions by recruiting in Ulan Bator (uh, which they probably are).

On Wall Street, of course, you'd get laughed out of the profession if you singled out fidelity to truth, justice and the American way as an important consideration in whether to hop aboard the money train. Good Samaritans need not apply. Monsters, either, of course -- only an ability to stash such issues in the bottom drawer. Indeed, in the many conversations I've had with bankers over the years, my broaching the issue of ethics has typically been met with "core values" boilerplate, embarrassment, polite condescension or outright eye-rolling.

One reason I suspect Wall Street and Main Street diverge in their values isn't so much that banks like Goldman are preoccupied with the bottom line ('twas ever thus), but rather that as companies they're transnational. Unlike community banks, whose connection to their local market generally keeps them tethered to local norms of conduct, the prosperity of big financial firms is increasingly disconnected from their home markets. Their fortunes may even be severed from the welfare of their own customers, as the CDO scandal shows.

Given human nature, people tend to care less about things that don't affect them directly. Similarly, separating economic consequences from their actions, like a loan moved off the balance sheet, not only has financial repercussions, but ethical ones. If you're interviewing at Goldman, of course, mum's the word.

Image from MorgueFile

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