St Paul's Institute

Ethical Banking: Not an Oxymoron

by Barbara Ridpath

Posted: 08 Jun 2015

The following article is based on an after dinner speech given at Brand Finance on 9 February 2015.

In the search for short-term profit maximisation, some financial institutions lost sight of the impacts of cost cutting, outsourcing and automation on client satisfaction, employee behaviour, and customer outcomes. In these conditions, it was not entirely surprising that customers did not feel particularly sorry for bankers when the crisis came.

How can financial institutions begin to re-earn the trust and confidence of their customers? Here are six basic strategies, which, if practiced consistently over time, could go a long way to restore public trust.

  1. Remember people are human beings with human dignity, whether they are customers, employees or shareholders. There is a human being at the beginning and end of any and every transaction. How you treat them matters and they remember. If you treat customers, employees and shareholders fairly over the long term, you will gain enormous loyalty.

  2. Tell all your stakeholders the truth in the simplest language possible. If you do that over the long term, they will begin to believe you. However, this has implications. It means no hidden costs in the pricing of services, the simplest possible contractual language, and clarity on the costs of break clauses. You must under-promise and over deliver. Do not use marketing slogans you don't mean.

  3. Leadership must pattern the behaviours and values they want their staff to embody. They must be consistent in behaviours and reward systems. Remember that your staff is smart. If you say one thing, and reward another, employees will see that very quickly. If they're told to cut costs while the chief executive still flies in a corporate jet, they will see that also. Let people see a firm's values embodied in each of their products and services, in the way they treat their customers, their suppliers, their employees and their shareholders, not printed on a mouse mat or posted on your walls.

  4. Think seriously about the multiple of compensation between your most senior and most junior employee. In the UK between 2000 and 2009, the multiple of chief executive pay to average pay for FTSE companies moved from 69 times to 149 times. JP Morgan thought that the ratio between the highest and the lowest paid employee should never exceed 20 and he was considered a robber baron in his time.

    The CEO at Aetna, a Fortune 50 US insurance company recently announced that 'it was not 'fair' for employees to be struggling to make ends meet.' He gave all the lowest-paid employees significant raises and improved medical care. My bet is that this will pay off in reduced staff hiring and training costs, lower staff turnover, higher productivity and lower litigation bills.

  5. Think hard about your corporate purpose. What are you trying to achieve over what time horizon? What gives your firm the right to use the resources of the places in which you are located: whether those are human, environmental or infrastructure resources? Are you paying your fair share of the costs of the services of that location? A 'license to operate,' defined as a purpose and outcomes that provide benefit to more than just your shareholders can have a strong positive impact on public perception.

  6. Last of all, consider the firm's time horizon. Is it seeking to maximize quarterly earnings or is it planning to be around for the next generation, or the next century? This has a huge impact on your view of return on investment both capital investment and investment in human capital. Consider whether the behaviours you incentivize with your remuneration packages align with your firm's time horizon. What's good for clients and good for employees is, in the long run, usually good for the shareholders too, with the obvious example that it costs less to keep an existing customer than to find a new one. Recently, National Grid and United Utilities have stopped quarterly reporting. Of course, if you're going to do this, you can't hire and fire chief executives as a result of short-term results either. 

What are the benefits?

These behaviours are self-reinforcing and create a virtuous circle: treat people better and they behave better. Integrate the institution in the community and gain customer loyalty. Treat people fairly and they will reward you with their business.

In the long term, these behaviours should improve retention of staff and customers; they are likely to improve productivity of both staff and outsourcers. Thoughtful behaviour throughout the organisation will also benefit the company's environmental footprint. The corporation will earn a 'license to operate' because it fills a social purpose as well as enriching its shareholders, which should in turn benefit it in customer surveys and on social media.

About this author

Barbara Ridpath is the Director of St Paul's Institute.

TonyW - Posted: 11 Jun 2015

Suggest add to item 5: your 'mission' should be to provide financial services for the real needs of our time. Renewable energy and energy efficiency, agriculture and food, housing to a decent and affordable standard, social inclusivity.

See the work of GLS bank (Germany) and Triodos and ASN bank (Netherlands) for examples.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.