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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Your customers’ sense of belonging


A friendly place

A smiling face

I had occasion to go into my local bank branch yesterday. As I walked to the service till, the cashier (teller) said with a smile “Good morning, Mr. Stow”. How did that make me feel? Well, immediately it wasn’t just a simple transaction. The service was personal because the lady had recognised me and remembered my name. I felt wanted. Whatever I say about my bank and banks in general, which can be quite a lot, I had a sense of belonging and a reinforcement of loyalty to my local bank’s staff.


Just cheap

We can all learn from that, or at least be reminded that an individual or personalised service at whatever level helps us to keep our clients and customers. Of course it depends on the business you are in. Both in retail and in services, some people just want the cheapest they can get, regardless of the service, so they will look for the lowest priced option without any brand loyalty. They buy the cheapest washing powder or the cheapest services.

In business services we might see the offer to complete a tax return for as little as £50, or $80. You don’t get much for your money and you do not get any advice as to whether you are claiming the right allowances and deductions. What you get is a cheap production line product without a guarantee except that they produce the tax return according to your instructions.

Cheap and value for money

Of course one can get a more rounded product with a good service which would also be cheap in terms of being a very reasonable price for the service provided, but that would cost a bit more. You get what you pay for. Then you would probably have some customer loyalty. If you are really happy with what you get including advice and support you will recommend the provider and stay with them.


At whatever level it is important to talk to our clients and customers individually, and to remember their particular issues. It makes them feel valued, wanted and belonging as I do in my local bank and as people did in that bar where everyone knew their name.

Don’t you believe in the personal touch?

And remember this?

Customer service and that nice warm feeling

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Remembering the few and many others

A photo of The Nutshell pub in Bury St Edmunds...
Image via Wikipedia

As I write this there have been commemorations and memorial services remembering The Few, those who fought in the Battle of Britain seventy years ago, and without whom I probably would not be here running my business in a free society. It is almost unimaginable what might have happened to European politics and culture in the intervening period, and what suffering there would have been beyond the terrible things that happened back then.

Of course very little in modern society can quite compare with what The Few did, but we should be very grateful to those in the last seventy years who have helped preserve our freedom with their courage.

It struck me recently that there are so many people making all sorts of contributions to our society including the business fabric of the modern economy. They did their bit and are so easily forgotten. My Dad spent time in North Africa, the Middle East, Italy and Austria during the Second World War. If it sound a little lame to say “spent time” it is because he has never talked about it much. I know that those years were mostly pretty unpleasant. The desert was a very uncomfortable place to be. Dad was in Signals, but was still a target landing on the beach in Sicily. He did his bit. Later, he worked in the City for a well-known bank (not one of the infamous ones), but he retired a long time ago and no one there today would know about his contribution.

My wife’s Dad joined the Navy in the Twenties and to his chagrin was injured on duty before the start of the Second World War and he was invalided out. He became a salesman, and a good one. He was the first to sell the beer produced by a well-known (then just local) brewery to non-ties outlets, free-houses, clubs and so on. The company is now huge and international, but to give you a clue it all started in Bury St. Edmunds. His son, my brother-in-law carried on the good work, but it would be nice to think my wife’s Dad, whom I never knew, was still remembered by more than just his family.

We work with others through our lives and their efforts help our employers and often our own businesses thrive. We have learned from other workers from the day we started in the working world. We always must owe a lot to those with whom we have worked, and maybe we have made small contributions to their lives too.

Isaac Newton was perhaps thinking more in terms of science and maybe philosophy when he said “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” but everything we have in business and in our society is from standing not only on the shoulders of Giants but on the shoulders of the little people, many or most of whom are forgotten. I think we owe it to ourselves and to them to remember while we can how we have come to where we are.

© Jon Stow 2010

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