2024iii16, Saturday: Everyone else.

2024iii16, Saturday: Everyone else.
The suit in question. Courtesy of Adam of London: classic cuts for almost 50 years.

There's a rule of thumb in compliance work. I can't remember where I picked it up: it might have been from Jim Nelson, my first financial crime boss in banking, to whom I owe a huge amount. Or it might have been from Hui Chen, an astoundingly good anti-corruption specialist whose deputy it was a genuine pleasure to be.

Wherever I got it from, it's served me well; as I'm sure it's served many others. Like all rules of thumb and heuristics, it's a good assistant but a terrible boss - by which I mean you use it as a guideline, but only in the awareness that it's a shocking approximation.

And it's this. The world splits roughly into three groups. A small proportion of people are saints. A similar proportion are shits. And in the middle there's everyone else.

Why is this a critical thinking tool in compliance? Well, your resources are always stretched thin. You're always looking for leverage: the points in processes where you get the best bang for the buck. And you're always, always working on the basis that people will always be people. Any system that fails to accept how humans tick, or expects them to be more rational, or more objective, or more homogenous, than they are is doomed to failure.

So you ignore the saints. They'll always do the right thing, regardless. Wonderful people: look out for them, celebrate them, love them, but generally - from a systemic perspective - ignore them.

You don't ignore the shits. But you accept you can't change them. They're always going to work the angles. Look out for number one at the expense of everyone and everything else. Choose to do the wrong thing if there's anything in it for them - and sometimes just because they can. You can't stop them doing so. So you rely on your other systems to throw sand in their gears, try to frustrate them enough so they leave and become someone else's problem, and for goodness' sake make sure your investigative and whistleblowing processes are bang up to scratch. Because you'll need them.

And then there's everyone else. Your true focus. Because everyone else - and we're talking, say, the middle 80%, with 10% of saints and shits at either end - are the people who, to a greater or lesser degree (each of course to their own), will respond to incentives. Will listen to the angel on this shoulder or the demon on that, depending on what circumstances dictate.

To be clear: when I say "incentives", I'm not talking about some insane compliance version of homo economicus, the perfectly rational actor beloved of those who venerate Adam Smith for all the wrong reasons; and utterly misunderstand and misapply the lessons he taught. I'm talking about the fact that all of us everyone else responds to what's happening around us. Are we having a good day or a bad? Have we been given the tools to do our job, or are we being treated as serfs compelled to dig a trench with a teaspoon? Do we feel trusted, suspected or betrayed... or simply ignored? And when it comes right down to it, have we been given any reason actually to care?

All these things can swing someone to the saintly end of conduct or the shitty one. And our job as compliance specialists is to construct systems and processes that make it easier to choose Option A. As another rule of thumb says: if your controls make it impossible for an eight-person team to do their job right when three have the flu and two are on holiday, your controls suck. Because unless every one of the three people left are saints, they're going to have to take shortcuts. And eventually the house gets blown down.

The fact that the vast majority of us are everyone else explains one of my golden rules of politics - and one of the reasons why I loathe con artists with such a passion.

First, the politics. It's always easy to take the low road: the road where you look at people, divide them into groups - whether by class, colour, sex, nationality, asylum status or otherwise - and point one group out to another as the source of all their problems.

We all know politicians who do that. Frankly, they fall into the "shit" category. Because they're the ones who are exploiting our openness to both our angels and our demons to avoid having to help, and to make everyone's lives worse other than their own. It's unforgivable. And this goes for left, right and centre: any time you do that, any time you split off a group and imply they're somehow less, you're making the world a worse and darker place. It's worst of all, of course, when it's the powerful doing it so that one group of the powerless will blame another group for their travails rather than asking those who can actually do something about it what, exactly, they're planning to do. But it's no excuse when anyone indulges that foul tendency. No excuse at all.

In fact, politicians like that are rather like con artists. Both groups find people's blind spots, weasel into their consciousnesses, exploit them, and turn them into marketers for all that's hurting them, pulling others down into the same mire. And, because people are people, make it harder and harder for those afflicted to come back out of it. Because that requires admitting not only that you're wrong, but that you've been taken for a fool. And we humans find that terribly, tragically hard.

I particularly loathe both groups - con artists and politicians who seek to divide and conquer - because they betray something I hold very dear.

Call me an old romantic. But half a century on this planet has left me convinced that far more people than one might expect want to listen to the angel over the demon. Give people the chance to be their best self, and many - most, even - will grab it. Get the incentives right, and the world gets better. It doesn't have to be a zero-sum game. As Adam Grant says, the givers can be winners. And often are.

And every so often, something happens which reinforces me in this belief.

Yesterday would've been my father's 81st birthday. It'll be ten years ago in September that we lost him, as a body weakened by radiotherapy couldn't keep up the fight, and failed. I thought I was OK. And I was, for most of the day. Till I wasn't.

Unfortunately, the moment when I wasn't was shortly before I got off a train. And in my distraction, I grabbed my bag... and forgot the suit-carrier, containing a brand-new suit from my all-time favourite tailor, which was lying on the luggage rack.


I didn't realise till half an hour later. I drove to the terminus station a few miles away; no joy. Called the train company and then at their instruction emailed in a lost property report.

Today, I couldn't let it lie. It was eating at me - partly, I think, as a kind of delayed sadness from the day before's little moment. Again I went to the terminus. Again nothing. But they suggested I go to Southend Central, the main station on the line in my area. So there I went.

And a miracle happened. My email had been received. The guy behind the counter smiled as I told my story, asked me to wait, and picked up the phone.

A couple of calls later he turned to me. "Was there anything written on the suit bag?", he asked. I wasn't sure, but mentioned the name of the tailor. "Adam. Yup, that's it," he said, smiling still more broadly. "It's at Fenchurch Street. Someone handed it in last night."

His colleague suggested I head there, an hour's ride away, to avoid it going into the gaping maw of the lost-property system on Monday. I was about to do so, when my hero spoke up again. "Mind waiting a moment more?" Of course I didn't. Several minutes later, he told me he'd asked one of the revenue inspectors to pick it up. "Give me your mobile number. I'll call you when it gets here."

And sure enough, at 1pm, the phone rang. And half an hour later, suit in hand, I walked out of the station.

Andy - for that was his name - shrugged off the thanks I offered. Just made sense to do it, he said. When I asked how I could write to the train company, C2C, to tell them how fabulous he was, he brushed that off too. Don't worry, he said. No need.

Sorry, Andy. Every need. I told you my problems. Was honest about how I'd messed up. And you decided to listen to your angels and turn my day around. I can't leave it without saying something.

Maybe Andy's a saint. But more likely, he's just like me. He's an "everyone else". Someone who, given the chance to make the world a bit better, grabbed it. Because why the hell not?

There's a lot of these people around. Look out for them. Give them the chance. What on earth do we have to lose?