Aon's ban on corporate hospitality worth more than $100 is a nail in its own coffin, says Anthony Hilton
' June is a great month for journalists. While May only has the charity night preview of the Chelsea Flower Show to distinguish it, this month brings the first invitation to Glyndebourne, to be followed closely by an invitation to Epsom.
That would normally be succeeded by one or two days at Ascot - although with the meeting in York this year while they redevelop the course one might be enough - interspersed by Wimbledon, and that age-old dilemma of whether to take in the ladies' finals on the Saturday or enjoy the best day of the Henley Regatta instead.
June is, in short, the month when the corporate world gets into entertaining mode, when it fêtes clients, contacts, regulators, politicians and, of course, journalists.
But no longer insurance brokers, it seems - or at least not those at Aon, whose management has demonstrated the absurdity of combining political correctness with panic. Aon has banned staff from accepting corporate hospitality, even lunch, if its value is worth more than $100 (£55).
That might run to a feast in McDonald's, but it is not going to cut the mustard (or pay for it) in the Savoy Grill, where I see many underwriters at feeding time.
Given that the cheapest Glyndebourne ticket costs more than twice this amount, and invitations usually extend to partners as well, we won't be seeing them there. Maybe that's why there were four empty seats next to me last week - or perhaps they knew I was there.
Over the years, I have had lunch in Downing Street with the Prime Minister and continued to write nasty things about him, been flown by private jet to Paris and had a motorcycle escort to the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe without becoming a fan of Lord Forte, and sailed off Valencia in Onassis's old yacht Christina O to watch Larry Ellison ocean racing, without supporting Oracle's takeover of Peoplesoft.
If a journalist or businessman were to sell his soul, I hope he would sell himself more dearly than that. If Aon thinks a $100 lunch will turn the mind of its brokers, it has been employing the wrong people.
An ethical stand such as this raises more doubts than it resolves. Of course deals are done that should not be done, but they come at a price way beyond anything proffered in the corporate hospitality stakes. To pitch the benchmark this low suggests that Aon has no confidence in the integrity of its people, and can only raise doubts in the minds of its clients.
Business is about personal relationships, and the informality of corporate entertaining is part of that. Companies that do bad things do so when that is the tone from the top. Middle-ranking staff will in general do what is expected of them.
Of course, individuals can be bent. A one-time friend of mine expanded his bank's lending out of Hong Kong and was lauded as a hero until one bankrupt borrower spilt the beans. He got three years in jail - no joke in Hong Kong - but the bank shrugged it off.
One bad apple and all that. But the bank had created an incentive structure that encouraged that kind of behaviour. And that is the pattern today, as more remuneration is based on payment by results and the notion that relationships don't matter but deals do.
If Aon wants to clean up its act - if, indeed, it needs to, it should look at the way it pays its people, how it judges success and how it selects people for promotion. If it gets that right, it need not worry about a $1,000 lunch, let alone a $100 burger.
' Anthony Hilton is a columnist for the London Evening Standard