Survey: Wall Street ethics still an oxymoron

July marks the fifth anniversary of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, better known as the Dodd-Frank Act. The measure was a direct response to the excesses perpetrated by Wall Street and to the lack of oversight and financial regulations that helped trigger the Great Recession.

The Obama Administration describes Dodd-Frank as the "most far reaching Wall Street reform in history," bringing into effect laws that hold the financial sector accountable, while working to prevent the huge financial gambles that nearly crashed the nation's economy.

But a new survey questions whether Wall Street has learned its lesson, or has just lapsed back into its previous unethical ways.

The survey is a collaboration between the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business and Labaton Sucharow, a New York-based law firm with a practice that focuses on protecting financial sector whistleblowers.

Researchers spoke to over 1,200 financial service professionals in the U.S. and the U.K. about a variety of issues, and their findings weren't encouraging.

For example, nearly half of those surveyed said it was likely their competitors engaged in illegal or unethical behavior to gain an business edge, and close to 20 percent felt it was sometimes necessary for people in their profession to engage in illegal or unethical activities to succeed.

About one-third of those polled felt company compensation structures or bonus plans put pressure on financial service employees to bend or break the rules, while 27 percent disagreed with the notion that their industry puts the interest of their clients first.

Twenty-two percent said they've seen or have first-hand knowledge of actual workplace wrongdoing. And around 25 percent said they'd probably take part in insider trading if it would net them $10 million and they had no chance of being arrested.

More discouraging, however, is that some financial services companies are apparently engaging in practices meant to stifle employees from reporting misconduct. According to the survey, 16 percent of those polled said their company's confidentiality policies and procedures halt them from directly reporting illegal or unethical workplace activities to law enforcement.

"When corporate whistleblowers are prohibited, discouraged or retaliated against for reporting crime to cops, we should all be scared -- very scared," Jordan Thomas, chair of Labaton Sucharow's whistleblower representation practice and a report co-author, said in a press statement.

Ann Tenbrunsel, another study co-author and a professor of business ethics at Notre Dame, said she's most disappointed by the lack of change in the data when compared to similar surveys over the past several years.

"Despite significant energy and efforts," she noted, "it appears we need to continue to think about how to improve the culture of ethics in the financial services industry and most likely, in other sectors as well."