Bullying and City culture: changing times?

18 November 2014

City culture and specifically the ‘unscrupulous’ behaviour of bankers has been front-page news since the collapse of Lehman’s in 2008. Since then, we have all seen headlines reporting the apparent toxic culture within some City-based organisations. But how far reaching is this supposedly reckless, macho and unforgiving culture and how does it affect those working in the City?  As we mark anti-bullying week, what has measurably changed?

Those working in financial and professional services businesses are perhaps at the coalface when it comes to aggressive behaviour, often driven by transactional and financial targets. 

While it is true (and rightly so) that there is more focus on professional ethics and behaviours, particularly on trading floors, it would be naïve to assume the job is done.  I was talking to a senior partner in a professional services firm at a recent event, and he remarked that little has actually changed in the City post-crisis, but that there are certainly signs that organisations have a renewed focus on changing the aggressive culture often associated with businesses in the City.

Regulators such as the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) are increasingly focusing on the behaviours of individuals inside and outside of the workplace and as a result steps are being taken to ensure a more compliant and socially acceptable environment, which must be encouraged (read our blog: professionals beware: your conduct outside of the office could be under regulatory scrutiny). In addition, the success of diversity and inclusion groups within many organisations reflects the desire of employees and management teams to ensure equality in all protected characteristics such as sex, race, sexual orientation, disability and religion, by engaging with staff on important issues and ensuring offensive behaviour will not be tolerated.

Unfortunately, bullying is still a significant problem in the City. The ‘banter’ culture is often personally targeted and offensive.  I remember hearing from a female friend that she would go to a different floor to use the toilet, avoiding a particular trading desk where she would be the subject of wolf whistling, heckling and even verbal abuse on occasion.  This behaviour cannot simply be excused as ‘banter’ or ‘just the way things are’, it is harassment.

The appalling example above is not unusual and it is often said that women working in the City "have to develop thick skin to hack it".  This is not a productive or supportive way to manage people. How can such a situation be allowed to take place in the workplace today?  Each of us has a right to be treated with fairness and respect in the workplace and there is no excuse for offensive comments and behavior simply in the name of ‘banter’. 

In 2010, the Chartered Management Institute (CMI) claimed 70% of managers had witnessed bullying in the previous three years and that bullying cost the UK £13.8bn per year.

Bullying and harassment of any nature is extremely damaging for employees and the organisations they work for.  As an employee, it can ruin career prospects and damage reputation; it is likely to result in stress, performance issues and can also lead to anxiety, depression and other psychiatric problems.  Employers may also face constructive dismissal, harassment or abuse proceedings.  In extreme cases, claims may reach the courts posing a substantial risk to the reputation of the business. 

Bullying in relation to age, gender, disability, marriage, race, religion, sexual orientation or pregnancy is illegal and employers are legally obliged to put measures in place to stop bullying or harassment.  Any instance of such an issue has serious implications for employees and employers.

As a gay man working in the City for 14 years, I have been fortunate not to experience significant problem.  For the most part I have worked for socially responsible employers, but I have certainly experienced discrimination in professional situations and treated as an outsider on occasion.

According to Stonewall’s Gay in Britain Report (2013), one in five (19%) lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) employees have experienced verbal bullying from colleagues, customers or service users because of their sexual orientation in the last five years. One in eight (13%) LGB employees would not feel confident reporting homophobic bullying in their workplace. A quarter (26%) of LGB employees are not at all open to colleagues about their sexual orientation.

Key recommendations of the report advise that:

  • Employers should communicate zero-tolerance policies on homophobic bullying and promote different routes to reporting, including gay employee network groups and developing straight allies programmes.
  • Employers should cultivate the development of openly gay leaders and role models in the organisation and encourage and support their visibility.

Employer workplace practices directly impact the purchasing decisions of gay consumers. More than half (54%) of LGB people say they would be more likely to buy the products or services of a company that showed a positive commitment to recruiting gay people.

Much has been achieved politically and socially in recent years, particularly in relation to the LGB community thanks to sustained and high profile campaigns from organisations such as Stonewall. There are learnings here for all areas of diversity, and building awareness across the broad spectrum of issues is critical to ensuring equality and zero tolerance of bullying and harassment.

Thankfully, we have seen significant improvements in the way disability is recognised in the workplace and recruitment teams have embedded policies to ensure fairness and equality covering all protected characteristics.

More organisations are employing women in senior roles, yet unfortunately an ‘old boys’ style culture still seems to prevail among many City management teams. Refreshingly, Kingsley Napley’s management team is two thirds female, and of the firm’s 46 partners, 24 are female, which sadly is still unusual in the legal sector.

When it comes to employing individuals from backgrounds other than Caucasian, there is still much to be done.  The Law Society survey in 2013 found that the profession is dominated by those from white/European backgrounds (78%), and by way of example just 0.7% are of African Caribbean origin.

Looking forward

Many of us who work in the City and surrounding areas will be only too aware that it is going to take a lot more than a small army of diversity and inclusion groups to turn around the culture in these behemoth sized organisations. But it is happening, thanks to social awareness and a general acceptance that the negative aspects of culture and behaviour in some City organisations needs to be addressed.  I recently attended a conference focused on corporate risk, and a focus on professional ethics and responsible behaviour seems to be front and centre of the compliance agenda.

In financial services, the overarching difficulty will be changing a culture which has to date seemingly motivated individuals only by financial gain.  Developing a team focused culture based on robust people values and collective responsibility will be exceptionally challenging, but not impossible.

Diversity and inclusion is on the agenda of most businesses, from the FTSE 100 to SMEs and start-ups.  Many now have extensive diversity and inclusion groups working closely with human resources teams and external charities to raise awareness and create a balanced and socially conscious workplace.

As far as my own involvement goes, I have helped to initiate Kingsley Napley’s diversity and inclusion group and we have hosted a number of successful internal events.  We are a proud member of Stonewall’s Diversity Champions Programme and we are now looking at how we can engage more openly on key issues with our immediate community, business contacts and farther afield. Diversity and inclusion is central to Kingsley Napley’s people strategy and it is wonderful to work for a firm which places genuine importance on its values of teamwork, respect, integrity and fairness.

While there is much to do to change aggressive City culture and the prevalence of bullying, what is clear, is that we all have a role in ensuring we create and achieve a more responsible and respectful workplace.  Crucially, there is more support than ever before to help us achieve it.

Support Anti-bullying Week 17- 21 November.  
Show your support and sign the register here.

Stonewall No Bystanders - anti-bullying week


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