Westpac, NAB and selling deception: Why we cannot stand by and do nothing

Brian Hartzer

Former Westpac chief executive officer Brian Hartzer. Source: AAP/Lukas Coch.

I’m so furious, but sadly not surprised at all, with the news this week about the unethical, shameful and frankly criminal actions of companies such as Westpac and NAB. They are not alone — far from it — but they stand out as current heinous examples of the deception, greed and corruption emanating from the highest levels of business and its devastating impact on people.

Someone asked me the other day if this was the fault of the salespeople who sold the junk insurance or billed dead people, or the fault of compliance teams that ignored the 23 million transactions. Yes, salespeople are complicit by their actions. However, this conduct, behaviour, approach, call it what you will, was condoned, endorsed and enabled by senior management and their boards. The buck stops with them.

There’s an old German saying: ‘You sweep the staircase from the top.’

Selling is not the bad guy here. Selling is the vehicle.

The real issue here is the intention of the business leaders and, by delegation, their teams to deceive their customers, to rip them off, to suck them in, to take their customers’ money at their customers’ expense. They had created cultures of deception. 

It’s all about the intention to deceive 

The chief executives, executive leadership teams and boards at Westpac and NAB are 100% responsible for these outcomes. And so are all the other companies’ leadership teams who think it’s alright and business-as-usual to deceive clients.

What they preside over is a culture where there is no honour, no morals, no decency and no respect. Just plain old greed, self-interest and disrespect and disregard for the welfare of their fellow human beings.

It is profit maximisation at its worst 

In my view, these chief executives and their boards should return all their bonuses, salaries and fees and be held accountable for these outcomes. 

What self-respecting chief executive and board member would let this happen on their watch?

Who is okay with this? Who endorses this? Who was holding people to account? 

Clearly no-one, because it was seen as their right. How entitled. How disconnected from humanity and ethics. 

What reasonable, decent person, in their right mind, thinks any of this is okay?

Selling deception is a crime

Let’s take a closer look at selling deception.

What does selling deception mean?

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has guidelines and principles that outline how to avoid misleading or deceptive claims or conduct on its website.

In the most basic form, selling deception is what happens when a person or organisation says they are doing (or will do) something in exchange for money from a willing client but that person or organisation knows what they are promising isn’t true, real or correct. 

We have two situations to look at here. 

Selling deception by making false promises

In NAB’s case, the company made false promises by selling junk insurance policies for credit cards and personal loans when clients didn’t need them or were not eligible to claim for them. These policies were sold to customers as an ‘essential’ item when they were not.

NAB has reached a $49.5 million settlement in the face of a class action from customers who were sold these deceptive products.

Selling deception by omission

In Westpac’s case, the company deceived by omission. The bank allegedly let 23 million criminal transactions happen on its watch and stood by and did nothing to prevent this from happening. It is accused of enabling money laundering, child sexual exploitation and other heinous transactions to occur by not doing its due diligence. 

Sadly, a lot of people still think that staying silent or not taking action means they are not complicit in the deception but they are. It’s lying by omission. 

As Edmund Burke said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

The Westpac chief executive and his board have let deception and evil flourish on their watch.

The human and reputational cost of selling deception 

The human and reputational cost of selling deception is enormous and far-reaching. 

This state of affairs has come about because companies have chosen to focus only on short-term strategies, profit maximisation and shareholder return. Cultures of deception are the norm and condoned.

Flawed incentives schemes enabled the deception to grow rampant, infect business cultures and delude staff. Otherwise good people got sucked into the money-making machine and forgot to question whether this is right or not. They left their morals and ethics at the door and sold their souls to making money at whatever cost — whatever it takes.

These conditions enabled immoral leaders who were focused on self-interest, greed and power to create massive ‘snake oil’ sales culture that preyed on people. Dressed up as ‘respectable’ corporate leaders, they are nothing more than ‘carpetbaggers’ looking to dupe and deceive people. 

Pity they weren’t like a young man I met the other day who, in his first forays into a sales career at the age of 19 several years ago, chose to leave the insurance company he was working for after a few weeks in a telephone sales role because of the company’s unethical sales practices. 

For too long the banking and finance sector has got away with selling deception. But so too have other big corporations such as medical device company Johnson & Johnson (the pelvic mesh lawsuit), state and federal politicians (too many incidences to mention here), the federal government (the Centrelink robo-debt scandal) property developers and councils (such as, Casey Council), social media (Facebook and fake political ads) and all sorts of other people and organisations. And that is just this week.

It seems like this is business as usual, but it is not. Most people in business do not operate this way. 

It’s not what we want. Despite the calls to cut red tape and make it ‘easier’ to do business (I read here ‘easier to rip-off customers and staff’) what we do need is a strong regulatory framework in place to ‘keep those bastards honest’. 

With better governance and tighter regulations we are seeing the light of transparency being shone more and more on these organisations; regulatory bodies such as AUSTRAC, ASIC, ACCC, IBAC and others are investigating and prosecuting criminal acts. People and their lawyers are launching class actions to get recompense and satisfaction. We are seeing a movement of people who will not stand by and let this deception and corruption happen on their watch. And it’s only the beginning. 

We must protect whistleblowers, and support open transparent journalism and these regulatory bodies, to ensure there is a pathway to exposure and accountability.   

We must not accept selling deception as the norm. We cannot stand by and do nothing.

The time is now to hold people to account and say enough is enough. 

Remember everybody lives by selling something.

NOW READ: The rise of ethical selling in the wake of the banking royal commission

NOW READ: Selling isn’t only for sales people


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