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Greg Smith to Goldman Sachs: A new era in Wall Street ethics

Greg Smith belongs to younger generations that put loyalty to values above loyalty to company. As young professionals ourselves, we believe his op-ed resignation from Goldman Sachs last week may well forecast a new era in ethics on Wall Street and in other workplaces.

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The study, done by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, surveyed more than 1,000 Deloitte employees and 390 business leaders. It also found that a whopping 92 percent of Millennials believe success should be measured by more than profit, compared to 71 percent of business leaders of older generations.

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What’s more, ideas about loyalty are being transformed by the Internet. Young Americans, raised with digital devices always at their fingertips, are becoming what Rebecca MacKinnon, author of “Consent of the Networked,” calls “netizens.” They are loyal to their own ethical values more than company codes or even national boundaries. Smith himself, a South African, was the executive director and head of Goldman’s United States equity derivatives business across multiple continents, indicating that his own ideas about moral and cultural norms were shaped across borders.

Finally, it’s important to note that the youngest professionals are actually consistently found to be more invested in and respectful of authority than their older brothers and sisters. So why might Smith feel entitled to mouth off in the “paper of record” and why would his peers cheer on his audacity?

As young professionals ourselves, we believe it’s precisely because the newer generations respect authority figures that they feel so strongly about holding them accountable. An older Goldman dropout might have privately said, “Of course the culture is dehumanizing and the clients are ‘muppets,’ ” and then grabbed the severance package and retired in style. 

Younger workers believe in their leaders and, therefore, have farther to fall when their beliefs are proven false. Smith did what he did, we suspect, because he was so deeply disappointed by leaders he had once held in high esteem.

He must have believed in the value of servant leadership, no matter what the sector. And he certainly believed in loyalty, not to one company, but to his own innate sense of what was right and wrong.

So do we. So do the majority of the generation just coming into professional power. The implications are actually much bigger than $2.15 billion and stretch far beyond the financial sector. Smith’s actions may well forecast a new era in professional ethics, where workers care more about their own moral compass than company rules.

It’s not that companies competing for young talent need to be perfect. But they do need to strive for meaning, ethical conduct, and a culture of respect for clients and colleagues alike.

The youngest workers out there are more convinced of our interconnectedness than any generation that’s come before and they’ll only increase pressure on the organizations they are a part of to honor this brave new world as well.

Courtney E. Martin is the author of “Do It Anyway: The New Generation of Activists,” among other books. John Cary is the author of “The Power of Pro Bono: 40 Stories about Design for the Public Good by Architects and Their Clients.”

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