Ethics, confidentiality and loyalty in business


Old-fashioned spy equipment

Old-fashioned spy equipment

Once upon a time

My first job was with a bank which operated mostly overseas. When I joined I signed an oath of secrecy and promised not to divulge any aspect of a customer’s affairs. Having done that, even as a junior person, theoretically I could look at the dealings of any of the customers with accounts in London. In practice, I could certainly look at their current account by helping myself to their ledger card which would be in a box in the next office by the desk of the person who typed the accounts up on an old NCR 32 Accounting Machine  I started work very young and the bank did not even have its first computer.

Incidentally the only ledger card I checked regularly was my own as not quite £12 a week did not go far even when I started work.


I guess there was very sensitive information available to me. Certainly we looked after the affairs of an overseas Prime Minister to whom I was introduced at around the age of twenty. No one at work would have thought of revealing anything about a customer to a newspaper or anyone else. My Mum and Dad worked in banks and we did not even discuss our employers’ customers between ourselves.

I was working in tax way back then too. We would speak to and write to people in the Inland Revenue (as it was called). All the Revenue employees had signed the Official Secrets Act and were also bound not to reveal confidential information to anyone except the taxpayer concerned, or to us as the customers’ agents.

I am sure that the Revenue employees, like we in the bank, took their oath and responsibility seriously.

Trusted guardians

Coming back to the present, we in the tax profession still take our responsibilities as guardians of private information very seriously. If required by any agency to divulge sensitive information, we would ask the client for permission except in very specific areas relating to the Money Laundering Regulations where fraud might be suspected.

There is currently a fashion for so-called whistle-blowers to go public with sensitive information. In business or in the public sector, surely one would have to suspect serious wrongdoing; otherwise any malpractice ought to be pursued internally or directly with the police?

The clean kitchen

Quite why someone working for a government intelligence agency, whose business is spying, should actually find it necessary to explain to a newspaper how that agency is spying and what they are spying on is hard to understand. Surely one’s first responsibility is to one’s employer? If you do not approve of spying (or banking or tax planning) do not work for an organisation which does that thing.

We should all uphold the law in our work and should never be involved in any wrongdoing. Beyond that, our loyalty must be to our employer (including Government if that is whom we work for), our business and most of all to our clients. Otherwise, if we can’t stand the heat, we get out of the kitchen and keep our own counsel.

Do you agree?


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2 Responses to Ethics, confidentiality and loyalty in business

  1. I certainly do agree, very refreshing to hear someone talking in such frank terms about the ‘interesting’ topic of whistleblowing. However I do fear for the next generation who will have every tiny facet of their lives shown for all to see via social media etc. It will be interesting to see how we define ‘privacy’ in the future.
    Catherine Wainwright
    CMW Business and Accounting Solutions Ltd

  2. Jon Stow says:

    Thank you, Catherine. Yes, certainly the teenagers in our family share every detail of their lives on-line. They will not be able to complain when the intelligence agencies have a big fat virtual file on them because everyone with whom they have ever come in contact will have one as well. Still, if we are entrusted with someone’s secrets we have to protect them.

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