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Confessions of a former HR director from a major US investment bank

Opening the HR kimono

What really happens behind the scenes in a big US investment bank? We spoke to a director of HR who recently left one leading US bank in the City. He's still in HR, but not in banking any more. He didn't reveal any tales of depravity, but he did answer our questions as follows:

You don't work in banking any more. How does that feel?

Pretty good. I'm pleased to be working in a sector where the value we provide to our customers is tangible and visible. It was becoming increasingly dissatisfying working in an industry which had lost so much trust of its customers and the community at large.

On a scale of 1-10, how much respect does the HR department get in an investment bank? 

I would say on average a 4 or a 5. The other industries I have worked in have tended to see HR have a much closer partnership with the business in helping to design optimal human capital management approaches. HR does tend to have a higher and more impactful profile in other sectors.

How hard do HR people in banks actually work? 

HR people in investment banking get “seduced” into the long hours culture, because the bankers they work for expect it. Considering the huge gap between the bonuses paid to bankers versus HR staff I always thought this was unfair. I tended to work from around 7.30am to 7pm.

What's the most challenging thing about being an HR director in a bank?

Managing conflict. I had to manage conflicts arising from all the different banking regulations. And then there were the continuous rounds of workforce reductions. We had to let a lot of good people go, which was depressing.

Do bankers listen to what HR people tell them to do?

Managers will invariable try be creative in avoiding the need to following agreed protocols especially if it prevents them from taking shortcuts. However, that's not specific to banking.

Why are discrimination cases so frequently in investment banks? 

In London, employees started getting more protection against discrimination in the courts from the mid-2000s. That brought often highly publicized discrimination awards which were uncapped. Suddenly, it was more lucrative for people who felt aggrieved to challenge decisions made by the bank - especially if there was a gender or ethnicity aspect backing their claim. Discrimination is no more common in banking than other sectors. It's just that the stakes are higher.

Is motivation a big issue in banking now?

Everything I hear from former colleagues tells me employee engagement is at pretty low ebb in banking right now.  Lower bonuses are playing a part, but I think the real reason is the impact of the continuous restructuring in the finance sector over the past few years. People have seen good colleagues let go. I also know that budgets previously earmarked for employee well-being, talent development and engagement have been cut or significantly reduced. And then it doesn't help that bankers are despised by the public at large...  

Related Links:

Yet another top fixed income trader quits banking for a hedge fund 

Ten things you need to know about banks' performance in the first quarter, by Morgan Stanley 

Six finance jobs that pay a minimum of £1k a day 

AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor
  • Se
    Senior Managing Director in Ne
    19 March 2014

    Do you really think that we view HR department as highly as "a 4 or a 5"? Please get serious. HR is recognized as an evil, and as a gatekeeper. It is a "1" at best.

    a) act as a screener of c.v.s and unwanted candidates.
    b) do not try and stop me from hiring the people I want.
    c) help them fill out the forms, get their ID cards, get on board … then get out of the way.
    d) fill out the forms for the EEOC, OSHA, and other data-collecting entities

    I could make some sexist comments about how HR is (in general) a colossal PITA ["pain in the a**"]. Males in the department are NOT highly regarded ["those who can, do; those who can't go to HR"]; females better be attractive or they are marginalized … and, if they are cute, they are certainly marginalized.

    "No tales of depravity" … then your interviewee certainly was out of the loop. While Jordan Belfort ["The Wolf of Wall Street"] was portrayed as over-the-top, that sort of activity certainly DOES continue today … we just hide it better.

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