Should I Stay or Should I Go?

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What do we do when we find ourselves working in an institution where there is an obvious conflict of interest? Bob Robinson introduces us to two specific people at Goldman Sachs during the financial collapse of 2009 and weighs the options—should a Christian stay or go?

A "toxic and destructive" culture and “morally bankrupt” staff. That is how Greg Smith described what it looked like at one of the world’s largest investment management firms in 2012. In a shocking resignation letter on the op-ed page of The New York Times, the senior executive revealed “Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs.”

Liaquat Ahamed, author of the book Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World (winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize in History), told Michael Hirsh in The Atlantic,

Greg Smith is dead right … Goldman and all the other investment banks are plagued by conflicts of interest. The problem is that over time all of them, but especially Goldman, have shifted from the business of advising clients or raising capital for clients to trading on their own account.

Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be

According to Smith, this is not how it has always been at Goldman Sachs. Smith stated that when he joined the firm, he was impressed by the business culture there.

Culture was always a vital part of Goldman Sachs’s success. It revolved around teamwork, integrity, a spirit of humility, and always doing right by our clients. The culture was the secret sauce that made this place great and allowed us to earn our clients’ trust for 143 years. It wasn’t just about making money; this alone will not sustain a firm for so long. It had something to do with pride and belief in the organization.

But over time, Smith insists that the ethical culture of Goldman Sachs shifted. I'm not sure if this is true, but it is Smith's contention. He continues,

Today, if you make enough money for the firm (and are not currently an ax murderer) you will be promoted into a position of influence … Today, many of these leaders display a Goldman Sachs culture quotient of exactly zero percent. I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them.

According to Smith, Goldman Sachs was not the way it was supposed to be. There was a conflict of interest.

Called to be Salt and Light

If you were in Greg Smith’s shoes, what would you do? Would you stay or leave? Conflicts of interest come in many shades of gray and often come by surprise.

It could be anything from the conflict of work obligations versus home obligations, as Dan King experienced, to accepting gifts from clients, as was the case with David Rupert.

It could be the temptation to use your position and/or connections in your occupation to further your personal gain, as is often the case with those in government oversight agencies.

It often is relational: a family member works in your department or is a potential supplier. Or, as Sam Van Eman talks about, a friendship becomes weird because the relationship begins to involve money.

As people called by Jesus Christ to be salt and light in the world, we will get caught in situations where interests conflict. If we have not experienced this, then we should ask if we are either not purposefully living for the sake of God’s kingdom or if we have been so inculcated by the fallen world’s way of thinking that we’re blind to such issues.

As salt, we are to preserve the way God intends things to be, and when conflicts like these arise, we point people back to goodness and truth. As light, we don’t always run away from the dark, but we often purposefully stay in order to reveal these conflicts of interest.

Living in the Messy Middle

I have a friend John who worked as a financial consultant with Goldman Sachs at the time of the Greg Smith resignation.

What did he do? John decided to stay.

He discovered that if he named the elephant in the room, if he made the bold move to ask people to work contrary to unethical practices, that many of them actually wanted to do the right thing. He told me that in his particular field office, he was able to get many of the financial advisers (even though he was the only confessing Christian) to commit to always put their clients’ interests before their own. Together they agreed to hold each other accountable to their standards.

Jeff Van Duzer, in his book Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to Be Fixed), acknowledges the reality of sin that plagues our work and how we as Christians are forced to exist within what he calls the "messy middle." He writes,

Christians need to realize that they are operating "between the finish lines." Their businesses function in a messy world. In some sense Christ’s victory is assured but not yet fully evident. Specifically, this means that Christians in business need to remain attentive to possible dissonance as they ply their craft …

… Simply recognizing potential dissonance, however, is not enough. Christians in business should become experts in looking for the creative "third way"—the way that is not one of the options initially considered, but a way that emerges as the business leader persists in living both as a faithful disciple and as a successful business person.

As my friend John reflected on Van Duzer’s concept of the "messy middle," he said,

In following this "third way" framework as a means to be faithfully present in my day-to-day work, I pray that we can be creative and search for solutions that not only glorify God, but also benefit all parties involved. Yes, there will be times that Christians must walk away from a job because of ethical reasons, and we must rely on the Holy Spirit to guide those decisions, but I think that this would be the exception and not the rule.

Staying or leaving, of course, is a very difficult decision, one only arrived at when we pray (Matt. 7:7) and seek counsel from friends and family (Prov. 11:14). But we must remember that even though we are called to be distinct from the sin we see in the present world, Jesus has sent us into that world to make sacrifices for the sake of those in it (John 17:15-18).

What would you do?