Branch staff to suffer as City bankers are reined in

Unions fear attempts to limit bonuses will hit counter workers hard. James Moore reports
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Is the banking industry really changing, as its bosses claim? HSBC's chairman Douglas Flint told MPs on the Parliamentary Inquiry into Banking last week that the events of the past five years will change the industry for the next 40.

Unions and consumer groups, however, are still asking when this change will take place at the coalface. And how it will work.

The latter is particularly important because some of the sector's unions fear that the City excess and sales-driven culture that caused the financial crisis is going to impact negatively on innocent counter and branch staff by cutting their meagre bonuses.

While top bankers can take home £1.5m, or much more, staff in the branches who deal with ordinary Britons can count themselves lucky if they get £1,500.

Their modest earnings could now be squeezed as a result the actions of people for whom the entire annual salary and bonus of a branch worker would barely pay for a third or fourth car.

Unite, the financial sector's biggest union, recently called on high street banks to follow the "lead of the Co-operative Bank and Barclays by scrapping sales bonuses for customer-facing staff and replacing them with rewards for good customer service". The union, which represents 130,000 UK finance workers, said it was still seeing instances of pressurised sales environments in a submission to a consultation on rewards held by the Financial Services Authority.

In that submission the union said that at one bank a shocking "eight in 10 workers suffer from stress due to unrealistic targets, the unremitting pressure to perform and insufficient time to do their job".

Unite also said bank staff are, even today, faced with performance improvement plans, the threat of disciplinary action or, in extreme cases, dismissal for failing to achieve sales targets.

In one large retail bank, it said, products were sold on a points basis, which lead to "mystery prizes" for staff that racked up enough of them. One banker, contacted by The Independent on Sunday, corroborates this, and said such a points system hurt customers and the members of staff who actually spent time and effort in helping them as opposed to selling to them. "At our bank every member of staff carries a points target. The problem with this is that important customer interchanges don't carry points.

"And it was often the case that the more experienced members of staff, who would deal with the old folk who came in, and help them out, didn't get any points. So they were put on improvement plans.

"The language has changed now, but we're still waiting for the implementation of the new system. And we're worried that it will be seen as a way of removing or cutting the variable pay that staff have got. It isn't all that much, perhaps £1,200 or £1,500. But that means a lot to you when you're only earning £18,000 basic. It's become a vital part of our income."

Linda Rolph, the general secretary of the Advance union, which primarily represents staff at Banco Santander who were once members of staff at the old Abbey National, says there are some grounds for optimism.

"Santander has moved away from the old sales approach. People are now given awards for being best adviser. I think if they tried [to cut pay through the back door by removing bonuses] there would be an uproar. We are generally quite pleased."

But Ged Nichols, the general secretary of Accord, which chiefly represents staff at Halifax and Bank of Scotland that are now part of Lloyds Banking Group, sounds a note of caution.

"It is important that the culture of banks changes, but it is equally important that the ordinary honest and hard-working frontline staff who've done nothing wrong don't again pay a price by having their remuneration reduced."

And the assistant general secretary of Unite, Gail Cartmail, says: "The short-term, 'quick-buck' culture, which fuelled the financial crisis, is alive and well in some of the boardrooms of our high street banks.

"The target-driven sales culture, where the performance of ordinary bank workers is judged on achieving sales targets, rather than meeting the needs of customers is unsustainable and could lead to another mis-selling scandal."

It seems then, that while things are changing at branch and call centre level, it isn't happening as quickly as staff representatives would like. If banks are serious about a service culture, which complaints data published by the Financial Services Authority would suggest is a departure from the way they have been doing business, they may need to cultivate a better relationship with their staff.

That won't be easy given the festering sore of the widespread job cuts which have seen thousands of positions axed across the sector in the past few years.

The other party in this debate is, of course, the consumer. Has their experience changed any? Are the elderly people who stop by their local branches getting the help they need without staff members losing out as a result?

It's early days yet and Which? is researching the issue. If it finds the practices that unions have reported reflected in what is happening to the consumer then it would suggest that there's a long way to go before the bank chiefs' lofty rhetoric is reflected at the coalface.

Which? executive director Richard Lloyd said: "While senior figures in the banking industry say things have changed, much more action is needed if public trust is to be restored."

He added: "We want to see a big change in banking. Bankers should be required to comply with a fully independent code of conduct and must be held to account for mis-selling and bad practice.

"Only then will public confidence start to improve and future banking scandals be more preventable."