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Four movies with a side of business ethics

By Sarah Freytag-Traut, Lead Manager – Communications and Campaigns, Association of International Certified Professional Accountants

Many of us love cosying up on the couch for movie night to venture into a different world for a few hours. But sometimes the storyline can hit close to home. What started as simple entertainment becomes powerful insight into our life experiences.

As October is all about ethics, we’ve been sharing lots of new resources to help you keep up to date. But there’s one more — slightly unconventional — way to dive into the topic (you guessed it)…movies. Here are our top recommendations: 

“Wolf of Wall Street” (2013)
Main cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill and Margot Robbie 
Director: Martin Scorsese

Synopsis: Jordan Belfort gets his first Wall Street job in 1987 and quickly learns that this world revolves around one thing: making money. After losing his job, Belfort creates his own brokerage company, Stratton Oakmont, which grows from 20 to more than 1,000 employees. But, in the process, Belfort turns into a reckless, profit-driven leader and shows no concern for how this is achieved. Watching DiCaprio bring Belfort to life raises questions about the way we do business, enforce corporate governance and, perhaps most importantly, what we should and can expect of businesses. It’s a topical movie for the modern corporate world.

“Erin Brockovich” (2000)
Main cast: Julia Roberts, Albert Finney and David Brisbin
Director: Steven Soderbergh

Synopsis: A struggling mother of three, Erin Brockovich gets a job as a legal assistant for Ed Masry. Erin doesn’t really fit in and gets very little respect from her peers; but that soon changes. Erin uncovers a water contamination scandal in southern California and is determined to get justice for the 634 plaintiffs. Erin encounters many obstacles because people who helped cover the issue are determined to see her fail. Looking back on this story, we can only wonder about the role and importance of ethics in business. How can we make sure that we always do the right thing in the face of adversity?

“The Big Short” (2015)
Main cast: Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt
Director: Adam McKay

Synopsis: This adaptation of Michael Lewis’s best-selling book depicts the lives of four finance professionals: Michael Burry, Jared Vennett, Mark Baum and Ben Rickert. What is so special about them? They predicted and heavily profited from the burst of the U.S. mortgage bubble in 2007 and 2008. In turn, this transformed into a global crisis and led millions of Americans to lose their homes. After watching “The Big Short,” one can only wonder if this could have been avoided. How do we hold organisations and individuals accountable in a business world moving at breakneck speed? 

“The Devil Wears Prada” (2006)
Main cast: Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, Emily Blunt and Adrian Grenier 
Director: David Frankel 

Synopsis: The story seems simple. Andy Sachs, a young Northwestern University graduate, dreams of becoming a respected journalist. Like many people, she gets a first job to get her career started. A job “a million girls would kill for,” — the second assistant for Miranda Priestly, the editor of fashion magazine Runway — turns out to be more than she bargained for. Andy quickly finds herself in sticky situations, which challenge her values and ethics. What would you do if your boss was power-hungry, refused to call you by your name and asked you to perform questionable tasks? Would you challenge your organisational status quo knowing this could cost you a lot, or bite the bullet until you’re able to leave?