Serving rich clients isn’t a panacea. Bud Fox, the neophyte broker in the classic film “Wall Street,” learned this the hard way.
Remember the film’s Shakespearan plot? Fox (Charlie Sheen), an ambitious junior trader, decides to win corporate raider Gorden Gekko (Michael Douglas) as a client. Gekko, ruthless and slick, brushes him off, but Fox persists, offering Gekko inside information about the struggling Bluestar Airlines. Fox gleaned this tidbit from his father (Martin Sheen), a maintenance foreman at the company.
Impressed with Fox’s potential, Gekko taps him as a trader, and so begins the hero’s preordained rise and fall. Soon, Fox willingly conspires with Gekko in securities fraud. And why not? The rewards — the big corner office, the opulent apartment, and the beautiful girl (Darryl Hannah) — are amazing.
But when Gekko threatens to break up Bluestar, hurting his father and friends, Fox redeems himself; but not before losing everything, including his self-respect. The plot is pure Shakepeare. But life imitates art, according to social psychologists who study wealth’s impact on human behavior.
In fact, their research suggests that as people’s wealth and status increase, their tendency to bend or break the rules in their own favor increases in tandem. Case in point: Researchers observing a four-way intersection recorded the make and model of drivers’ cars and their driving behavior. They found that people in the most expensive cars were four times more likely to cut off other drivers than those driving more modest vehicles and three times more likely not to grant the right of way to pedestrians in the crosswalk.
In another experiment in the study, researchers asked participants to imagine themselves as being rich or poor. Researchers then offered them candy from a jar ostensibly belonging to children in the lab next door. The rich participants grabbed more candy than the poor ones. Five other experiments confirmed the same pattern, writes Paul Piff, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley and lead author of the study.
Rich people are more likely to believe that the pursuit of self-interest is a good and moral thing. We lack the space to debate the virtue of that belief, but consider this: The highly affluent didn’t get rich by accident. They focused relentlessly on their needs and goals, not the ethical or legal constraints of others.
So if a rich client asks you to do something wrong, don’t expect the person to worry about you losing your license, going to jail, ruining your reputation, or getting fired. As an ethical advisor, those are your concerns, and you owe it to yourself to make the principled decision.
As you weigh how to balance a wealthy client’s requests with your own values, consider these pointers:
Remind yourself of the “real you.” What was important to you before you tasted the benefits of working in the affluent market? Is that person still inside you?
Compare the financial rewards of your current situation with the intangible benefits of acting with integrity. Which do you think are more sustainable and satisfying?
If you have children, think about whether your conduct would make them proud of you.
Finally, consider the feasibility of walking away from an unethical client, hopefully replacing the revenue with clients whose values track your own.
Because as Bud Fox discovered at the end of “Wall Street,” no gravy train is worth the ensuing ethical train wreck. And losing the respect of those you love is the worst damage of all.