Big bank misbehavior, small fry prosecutions

August 21, 2013: 3:56 PM ET

Government officials are orchestrating a reversal of fortune for workers as they target low-level employees of major financial institutions, leaving the big fish in their corner offices.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder

FORTUNE -- You work hard. You do your job. You follow orders. If the directives seem wrong, you try to figure out how you can reconcile your initial impression with what your bosses want. You express skepticism, but ultimately you do what you're told. You do need your paycheck, don't you?

Beware. These days, behaving that way could lead to your prosecution, especially when your boss is willing to throw you under the bus and testify against you.

Think: J.P. Morgan (JPM) and the London Whale. It's not CEO Jamie Dimon who's catching the heat from prosecutors. It's former employees Javier Martin-Artajo and Julien Grout. And at Goldman (GS), it wasn't CEO Lloyd Blankfein or President Gary Cohn. It was former trader Fabrice Tourre.

Government officials are orchestrating a reversal of fortune for workers. In a previous era, prosecutors went to the little guys first to catch the big fish. But these days, prosecutors preen in front of the cameras to blame the head honchos while they lay out their cases against members of the rank and file.

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By their actions, we are experiencing the double slap of leadership failure. First, we take the hit from banking executives willing to blow up our economy -- and then get the follow-on sucker punch from regulators failing to hold them accountable. And what is accomplished? These executives and enforcers have managed, quite neatly, to eviscerate many people's already tattered trust in authority.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder is famous for saying that big banks are too big to jail, but he's now clarifying that individuals aren't. Wow, wish we'd known that before. It's been five years since the crisis with no prosecutions of high-level executives. Perhaps his statements are a warning shot: Maybe more small guys will fry.

The question for regular folk is, What comes next? The U.S. has opened a bribery inquiry concerning J.P. Morgan's alleged hiring of the children of Chinese officials. Can we expect to see the administrative assistant responsible for new hire paperwork taking the fall? And in the latest probe of J.P. Morgan's energy manipulation, will U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara find a lowly energy trader to charge?

Perhaps prosecutors will extend these new-fangled approaches beyond the banking sector. Certainly, CEO Jeff Skilling and CFO Andy Fastow would have been pleased if these were the prevalent practices when Enron met its demise. Maybe criminal enterprises will be getting the same treatment soon. Then we might witness prosecutors proudly informing us that they are great cops on the beat because they got a non-incarcerated drug kingpin to turn evidence on a couple of street sellers who've now been charged for selling dope.

Wherever this leaves us, it may have an upside. If prosecutors aggressively pursue the Javiers, Juliens, and Fabrices, risk-averse employees may think twice before signing on to work for organizations led by individuals who do not share their moral compass. We've already seen employees less willing to work for large companies that have missions they're opposed to, treat their stakeholders poorly, or harm the environment.

But let's get real. For society to ask the Javiers, Juliens, and Fabrices of the world to be the standard bearers, people need to have bona fide employment options. An economy with narrowed options for workers produces a lose-lose proposition for the majority and a win-win for just a few.

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There are, of course, several ways out. One is to equip college graduates with the wherewithal to start their own businesses or freelance with basic, marketable skills. Another is to ensure that enough of our country's resources go toward creating jobs in organizations that benefit society -- and to be smarter about preventing upsurges in economic desperation that make it more difficult for normal people to say no to jobs that don't match their values.

The recent prosecutions are just the latest examples of the higher risks experienced by those who reap lower rewards. We are standing on our heads -- and the blood has rushed there. It's time to stand up straight again.

Eleanor Bloxham is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance (http://thevaluealliance.com), a board education and advisory firm.

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About This Author
Eleanor Bloxham
Eleanor Bloxham
Contributor, Fortune

Eleanor Bloxham, an authority on governance and valuation, is CEO of The Value Alliance and Corporate Governance Alliance, an independent board and executive educational and advisory firm she founded in 1999. She is author of the books Value Led Organizations and Economic Value Management: Applications and Techniques, and publisher of the Corporate Governance Alliance Digest and her blog The Bloxham Voice.

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