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What can HR do to change the banking culture and rebuild trust?

What will it take to restore the public’s confidence in the financial sector? HR directors have their work cut out to change what’s rotten at the heart of banking culture.

Manhattan: a young investment banker spends his days making millions on Wall Street and his nights drinking excessively, snorting cocaine, sleeping with prostitutes, and committing a string of increasingly sadistic and grisly murders.

That's the plot of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho, in which a young Patrick Bateman goes on a murderous (and possibly entirely delusional) rampage through New York during the financial boom of the 1980s. It's fiction, of course, but today, as the UK attempts to clamber out of recession, is the general public's view of those working in the financial sector really that different to Easton Ellis's cynical portrayal - hopefully minus the murders?

Public trust in the UK's banking sector is at a nadir. A 2012 survey by consumer group Which? found eight in 10 people think banks have not done enough to change the banking industry to prevent another credit crunch, and a further 70% of people think banking culture hasn't improved since 2007. Peter Vicary-Smith, chief executive of Which?, says: "Five years on from the beginning of the financial crisis, public confidence in the banking industry is at an all-time low, with a series of scandals exposing mismanagement and corruption at the very heart of the system."

Meanwhile, a 2012 global survey by PR firm Edelman found the public distrust financial services and banks more than any other industry, with the two trailing pharmaceuticals, energy and even media in the trustworthiness stakes. And the latest Edelman Trust Barometer reveals that UK trust in the banks is staying low, with only 22% of the people surveyed in 2013 saying they trust them. The public also links trust to culture directly, with the 2013 Edelman research finding the average UK consumer thinks toxic internal cultures are mainly responsible (59%) for banking scandals.

"The trust has gone," says Alex Rickard, head of employee proposition at City wealth management firm Towry. "At a dinner party or in the pub, people will just bash financial services. It used to be a respectable career for life; now they are the least liked people in the room." And it's not just the big-bucks earning investment bankers who are demonised. "Even if you're a cashier, your neighbour thinks you caused the recession," says Maria Bourke, ex-COO of investment bank Citigroup.

Unfair to the majority - particularly those toiling away in retail banking - as that attitude may be, it's not hard to see why trust has eroded so completely. The financial crash might have occurred five years ago, but since then we've also seen major banks including HSBC, RBS, Barclays and Lloyds implicated in Libor rate-rigging scandals and heard tales of unabated excessive bonuses. "The City has changed very little, and that's the frightening aspect," says John Greenwood, CEO at investment management firm Creechurch Capital, who has worked in the financial services sector since the late 1990s. "The culture of tolerating, and even rewarding, any sort of behaviour for profit, hasn't changed. The alpha individuals get away with murder."

That transformation is needed is something of an understatement, but despite Greenwood's cynicism, even he admits that things are starting to change for the better - although he says it may not be down to choice. "The public sees through all the lies now," he says. "There will be a core that doesn't change until it dies out, but [the City] will change - even if it's through a fear of getting caught rather than a fear of doing something wrong."

Charles Tilley, chief executive at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA), agrees that things are moving forwards, albeit it slowly. "The culture of the City is changing," he says. "It's being driven by regulation and the huge fines we've seen [UBS was slapped with a record-breaking bill of £940 million last year], and by the need for transparency. There's nothing in your company that is secret anymore, and if you think you can keep anything secret, you are naïve."

As social media becomes more influential, concealment becomes near impossible. Whether it shows fear of getting caught or a genuine desire to do the right thing, banking CEOs have recently started speaking up about their desire for cultural change. Last month, UBS chief executive Andrea Orcel expressed a commitment to overhauling the culture at the Swiss bank, which has been caught up in a number of scandals, including allowing rogue trader Kweku Adoboli to lose $2.3 billion. "We all got too arrogant, too self-convinced that things were correct the way they were. I think the industry has to change," he said, adding that UBS would now be "getting serious" about putting integrity over profit.

And in January, Barclays CEO Anthony Jenkins sent a memo to his 140,000 staff setting out the bank's new value proposition. "The behaviour which made those headlines in 2012 [about Libor rate-rigging] took place in the past," he said in the memo. "But it helped underline how banking as a whole had lost its way, and had lost touch with the values on which reputation and trust were built." For those who are not comfortable with Barclays' new set of values - respect, integrity, service, excellence and stewardship - Jenkins' message is clear: "Barclays is not the place for you. The rules have changed. You won't feel comfortable at Barclays and, to be frank, we won't feel comfortable with you as colleagues."

The words used by Orcel and Jenkins - the language of cultures and values - bring people, and HR, to the fore. In the wake of the recession, some (well, us to be precise) criticised HR departments in the financial sector for sticking their heads in the sand, pleading ignorance or powerlessness in the years leading up to the crash. In a 2009 piece, HR magazine said: "As investment banks and financial institutions are shamed in the press and their CEOs are dragged across the coals, HR professionals have remained conspicuously silent." But now, after the financial sector has been left with no choice but to clean up its act, HR directors have a critical role to play.

"HR issues are rarely mentioned [when we talk about the crash], but it is HR issues that are at the root of the problem," says Andre Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at London's Cass Business School. "Culture is imperative," adds Damian Carnell, director at professional services firm Towers Watson. "Employees should know the right thing to do. Formal governance is the brakes, but culture is the overlaying thing. You simply shouldn't be doing the wrong thing, and you should be learning the right thing to do from your peers and your seniors."

Simon Hayward, senior partner at leadership development specialist Cirrus, who is working with some of the big financial institutions on cultural change, agrees. "It was a relatively amoral environment, all about the money, with no sense of responsibility to society," he says. "Changing that for a new set of beliefs is a big challenge, and although it has got to come from the top, HR is the catalyst for cultural change. You can change mechanisms like benefits or moving away from commission-based sales, but if the underlying belief structure is the same, you are not changing behaviours in the long-term."

Changing behaviours throughout a company, when the big banks have thousands of staff all over the world, is a tall order. "I have no doubt that the boards of financial institutions are trying to do the right thing, but how do you make sure that it is really happening down the line?" asks CIMA's Tilley. Hayward advises "reducing the bureaucracy that people can hide behind. Change the conversation, from the top. And don't be afraid to make tough decisions, like asking people to leave because of their behaviours, even if they are performing well. HR can be the conversation, and the enabler."

But making those tough decisions requires brave leadership, thanks in part to the notoriously competitive nature of the sector, and its increasing globalisation. If one business or government takes the step of deciding to change or regulate pay and reward structures, what is to simply stop high performers leaving for another company or country?

"There are societal and media pressures over pay, but we are operating in a global market," says Tilley. "If you aren't rewarding in a way that's consistent, you won't get the best people." And that requires long-term, sustainable thinking - Bank of England financial stability director Andy Haldane recently suggested bonuses be deferred for five to 10 years, for example - rather than the damaging short-termism that has been rife in the industry. In fact, says Hayward, "brave" CEOs are thinking about the long-term, even if that means losing out slightly in the short-term.

While the bigger financial organisations grapple with these issues, Greenwood believes that "the crisis has been a great leveller". Formerly marginal and new players are making more of a splash, particularly if they can offer consumers a more attractive, more moral proposition. Take the Co-operative Bank: in 2010, a year in which most banks suffered huge losses, it grew its profits by over 17%, mainly down to its proudly proclaimed ethical standards, which became an even more valuable point of difference.

Towry is another company forging its own ethical way through the financial services industry, led by outspoken chief executive Andrew Fisher, who has told HR magazine in the past: "Few other human endeavours would be comfortable to have 'fear and greed' as an appropriate strapline, let alone be proud of it, as in the case of financial services."

Fisher's vision of a new paradigm for financial services is what attracted Rickard to the organisation in the first place. At Towry, all employees are shareholders and are paid on a fee-only basis, rather than a commission-based one.

"I had never worked in a financial services company before," says Rickard. "I wasn't interested in the industry because it never felt right. Fisher's vision made sense to me, but it just didn't happen in the industry, so I had a blank piece of paper from an HR perspective. I wanted to start from a strong set of core values that were paramount to how we did business." Once established, these values have been placed squarely at the centre of everything Towry does, even if that means making difficult people decisions.

"We hire against our values and you see them everywhere," explains Rickard. "We manage performance against them, remunerate against them and make tough decisions against them. With new people, it can take time and sometimes it doesn't work out, but behaving and living those values consistently is key. Culturally, we have been through massive change. In the past, what drove, motivated and incentivised wealth advisors was what went in their back pockets."

For Rickard, patience is more than just a virtue when it comes to instilling a new set of values - it's an imperative. "The whole behaviour [many people working in financial services exhibit] is a learned behaviour, over many years, in the environment in which they have been able to flourish," she says.

"Those are years in which those individuals have never known anything different. We're trying to unlearn that behaviour, and it is really difficult. You have to have patience and you have to help people through it, help them to understand what else there is out there. They don't get it straight away because they don't know anything different. And in the banking community, people are too ready to become 'culture ready'. They mask their real identities. We need to create a culture where people feel comfortable being themselves and saying how they feel."

That idea of 'learned behaviour' is one that undermines the argument of many that scandals are down to the rogue behaviour of a few 'bad apples'. While it is tempting to rationalise it, Cass Business School's Spicer and his research partner Jean-Pascal Gond, professor of corporate social responsibility, say that there is something seriously rotten at the cultural core of the financial sector, and that until it is fixed, any change does as much good as slapping a plaster on an amputated leg.

"The most basic issue, the one that hits you in the face, is the extreme working hours and the lack of holidays," says Spicer. "It's a self-reinforcing culture: you are treated like a hero for working like that. And that's drilled in to people very early in their careers. Interns work all night on projects; it gives them a buzz and makes them feel important."

And, as in the fictional case of Patrick Bateman, that lack of work/life balance eventually begins to take its toll. "You can maintain it for five to seven years, but after that, your mind and body begin to break down," explains Spicer. "There's psychological slipping, erratic behaviour, no limit to what is work and what isn't work. That affects decision-making."

"[Rogue trader] Jerome Kerviel never took a holiday," adds Gond. "He knew if he did, people would look at his [trading] books. So not taking holidays became a way to hide dysfunctional behaviour, and the culture encouraged that." Reward systems can also encourage excessive risk-taking. "It's clear in the UBS Adoboli case that his bonus was getting doubled every year," says Gond. "Why would you stop, if all the signals you were getting from the organisation encouraged you to keep going? And that culture is not just at an organisational level - it's at an inter-organisational level."

It's a view Towry's Rickard echoes: "The likes of UBS have become so culture-ready that you get employees who have lost a sense of reality. They spend so much time at work and are under so much mental and physical pressure and stress that they lose sense of reality. To lose that much money, you must be operating in a vacuum."

"HR issues have been neglected," continues Spicer. "Traders in investment banks can often see HR professionals as being a 'problem' and the function can struggle to find its place. It needs to be re-established within the organisation." Carnell from Towers Watson agrees that HR may often be deliberately sidelined.

"In the big banks, HR can be seen as part of the back office, not what is needed to run a business," he says. "HR's job is simply seen as 'sacking with a smile' and to 'stop us being sued'. Ten years ago, I was dealing with a big stockbroker going through a merger, and was warned not to tell HR anything about it. HR wasn't trusted, and that's still a common view."

But according to Robert Potter, chairman of the City HR Association and group strategic HR director at insurance firm Jardine Lloyd Thompson, HR's role has never been stronger, as the City rebuilds itself.

"It's important to recognise the lag and lead times in terms of the perception of the City of London and the workplace," he says. "The events in the Libor headlines we are seeing now occurred between four and six years ago. The good work has been underway for two years, but implementing change takes a long time. And HR is at the heart of it. The Lord Mayor's office sees it as much as a people management issue as a governance issue. It's an exciting time for the profession. HR is responsible for implementing best practice, and when we speak to our members, we see HR departments are growing in terms of skills, size and activities."

As important as trust and values are to employees and customers, they also contribute to another of the industry's most critical concerns, and one which falls within the realm of HR: recruitment and talent pipeline. As Carnell asks, "Where are your next generation of traders coming from?" It's commonly cited that Generation Y wants something different from their careers, such as a better work/life balance, and to work for a company whose values they feel they can personally align themselves with. So, despite the mega-bucks, will they want to work in a sector with such a bad reputation?

"It's not attractive as it used to be for the fast-track whizz kids," admits ex-Citigroup COO Bourke. "They all want to work in technology now. Progressive HR directors are realising that they need to change their strategy. People are finding their skills are portable, and companies can't afford to lose that expertise."

Spicer agrees: "The kind of students I teach at Cass Business School are the kind of graduates banks would probably like to recruit, but they aren't interested in working themselves to death in a corrupt industry."

As well as attracting the best and brightest, HR can also play a role in making sure managers recruit people with the 'right attitude'. But, warns Hayward at Cirrus, you also need to pay attention to the employees you already have: "With more socially responsible, questioning and sceptical graduates, it only takes one money-laundering crisis to undermine a lot of hard work."

It makes for a tough day at the office, overhauling banking's reputation, detoxifying cultures and rebuilding public trust. But if done right, it will come with rewards beyond the financial. "The majority of people who work in the sector still have pride in it," says Andi Keeling, director of women's markets at RBS, who is on a mission to diversify the industry. "Not a pride because of what's happened, but a pride in putting this industry back where it should be. Most of us, during those terrible times, didn't do anything wrong. There is a pride in getting banking's reputation back to where it should be. People want to be part of the journey - the team that turned the bank and the industry around."

"Let's not forget that the City of London adds huge value to the UK," adds City HR's Potter. "That's credit to the incredible hard work of people in the industry. It's the jewel in the crown of the UK economy."

Back at Towry, Rickard believes now is the time for the sector to completely reinvent itself, and that leaders, HR professionals and employees need to grab it with both hands. "This is our opportunity to present financial services as a career of choice," she says.

"From disaster, there is always opportunity - and what a great place to start. It's an opportunity for us to re-educate from the grassroots, to go to schools and universities and talk about what is right and what is wrong. What an opportunity we have now to get it right, to ensure that the customer comes first, not someone's pay packet."