For the past three years, Professor David Miller has concurrently worked as an on-call ethicist for Citigroup while also serving as a University professor and lecturer in the Department of Religion. He works with senior management at the multinational investment bank, advising them on the intersections of banking, the pursuit of profit, and moral and ethical boundaries.
Miller was hired three years ago by Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat in response to internal findings that employees were uncomfortable raising concerns about possible moral transgressions in their work, according to The Wall Street Journal.
According to economics professor Jean-Christophe de Swaan, who has taught the freshman seminar “Ethics in Finance” for the past six years and is currently writing a book on virtue in finance, Citigroup’s hiring of Miller is the right one. An ethicist would be able to counsel and advise executives on morally-unclear financial decisions more effectively than the bank's compliance officers and lawyers. The move is also the first time such an action has been taken by a large financial institution, setting a new precedent for self-regulation in the financial industry, according to The Telegraph.
“It makes a lot of sense for a financial institution like Citigroup to get external advice on ethics from an expert,” de Swaan said. “An expert on ethics will have thought about these issues for a long time, will be able to provide an outside-in perspective that is inherently more objective, and can share some useful parameters or frameworks to guide managerial decisions.”
Miller’s employment by Citigroup was also motivated by Citi’s reputation for ethical problems, Public distrust of big banks has risen over the past few years, especially during and after the recent financial crisis, and Citi has not been immune to those tensions. Because of this fact, de Swaan believes Miller’s work at Citi is a logical move in the direction of public trust again.
“Financial institutions need to find ways to regain the public's trust, and that starts with serving foremost their clients' interests, even when no one is looking,” de Swaan added.
Miller’s work as a bank’s ethicist comes at a time when several banks’ scandals have recently been publicized. In particular, Citigroup has been included in a scandal in which large banks have hired the underqualified children of Asian foreign officials as interns and employees in order to build business relations in the area.
According to de Swaan, however, financial scandals are mostly carried out by a handful of people who knowingly and willingly breach moral standards in the pursuit of profit. The majority of bankers, traders, and executives behave morally and honorably; it’s only when the rules of the financial game become overly complex and “opaque” that good people are lead by cognitive biases to make ethically questionable decisions.
"There is a way to uphold humanistic values while working in finance by both being a strong fiduciary, which means faithfully serve your clients' interests, and by doing so in a way that adds value to the rest of the world rather than extract from it,” de Swaan observed. “But to do so, you need to constantly question the motivation behind your decisions and project their potential consequences, including spillover effects, rather than relentlessly play the game without being thoughtful about its impact on others.
Since starting at Citi, Miller’s ideas on ethics and morality in finance have already influenced the bank’s culture and training. Citi executives have used Miller’s ideas of three lenses in ethical decision-making to formulate their own standards for financial actions: serving clients’ interests, creating economic value, and remaining systematically responsible. According to The Journal, the lenses will be included in employee training manuals, in Citi’s mission statement, and in Citi offices worldwide.
Miller’s qualifications for working as an ethicist in the financial industry in particular stem from his own prior education and work experience. Miller studied business at Bucknell University, and worked at several different well-known financial services firms, including HSBC and State Street Bank. However, after his wife left her job at a law firm to become an ethics professor, Miller decided to return to school to study similar subjects.
Miller received a Master of Divinity degree in Theology from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1998 and a Ph.D. in Ethics from the same institution in 2003. After receiving both degrees, Miller served as the executive director of Yale’s Center for Faith & Culture. In 2008, he came to Princeton to found and direct the University’s Faith & Work Initiative.
June Chang '17, former VP of the Princeton Corporate Finance Club's Equity Research Division, did not respond to requests for comment.
Miller did not respond to requests for comment.