Corporate Culture in Banking: It’s All About Trust

Shortly after accepting my first banking job in Texas, I was ushered into the office of a bank executive for my Trustintroductory meeting. It was a friendly little “get-to-know-you” visit, full of Texas-style humor and hospitality. Shortly before the end of the meeting, he turned suddenly serious and explained to me in very clear language what it meant to be a “Banker”. Because bankers handled other people’s money, he declared, they were held to very high standards of ethics and personal conduct. With absolutely no smile on his face, he told me there were three things that would automatically get a person fired from  banking: “lying, stealing and cheating”.

If the definition of “corporate culture” is “the way things are done here”, I can assure you I left his office with a crystal clear understanding of the bank’s expectations for how things were to be done while I worked there. There were no witnesses to the conversation, I signed not a single sheet of paper. But I knew, without a doubt, I had signed onto a Banker’s code of conduct.

Since then, the banking industry’s reputation has been badly damaged by the bad behavior of bankers at all organizational levels and at many well-known banks. We’ve been appalled by the actions of rogue traders, sub-prime lenders and manipulators of the LIBOR – just to name a few instances. Yet, as an HR representative, I’ve asked thousands of bank employees to sign Code of Ethics documents, written by attorneys and compliance experts, that ran to well over 100 pages. Little surprise that these are not read and prone to be ignored.

Clearly, the way in which we communicate our expectations of how bankers are expected to operate isn’t working. The problem starts at the top with leadership failing to set the course and lead by example. We need our executives to communicate – in plain English – the high standards that are expected of employees and then visibly demonstrate appropriate behaviors on a daily basis.

Code of Ethics documents, policies and procedures, performance management processes, rewards and recognition programs and compensation plans are designed to support and operationalize the vision and objectives of leadership. Plans and programs cannot stand-in for leadership and won’t work when not aligned with the words and actions of the managers with whom employees work every day.

Banks are going to spend a lot of money to “transform corporate cultures” in response to the banking scandals. Good news for the consulting industry, I’m sure. But new programs will not solve the ethics gap. What is needed are leaders talking with employees, explaining the special trust that must exist between Bankers and their customers and the high standards to which Bankers are rightly held. A short, well-delivered message – “no lying, stealing or cheating” would go a long way towards getting the job done.

© Noma Bruton and Sagacity-At-Large, 2013.

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