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The bankers’ oath: symbol politics or an exponent for cultural change?

November 9, 2016 – by Rob van de Blaak and Muriel Weinstein  &samhoud consultancy

The economic crisis of 2008 showed that something is wrong with our financial system. The crisis was, among other things, caused by a lack of norms and values within the culture of the banks. Greed and short term profit were incentives for putting the bank and employees interest above the interest of the customer. In March 2016 we wrote a blog about this last phenomenon: “Does the bankers’ oath work?”. We explored, within the context of the bankers’ oath, the behavior of bankers in relation to putting the customers’ interests first. We discovered that it does not come naturally for bankers to put the customer’s interest first and raised the question if the bankers’ oath could impact and contribute to the cultural change in the financial sector, which should lead to a sector where the customer’s interest is the main focus.

The general perception of the bankers’ oath

In this blog we want to elaborate more in depth on the impact of the bankers’ oath.
The Dutch politics introduced together with the Dutch Banking Association (Nederlandse Vereniging van Banken, NVB) the bankers’ oath. The goal was to stimulate a cultural change within the financial sector. The Netherlands is the first country where the bankers’ oath is introduced. In the past few months we executed a qualitative research. In our research we focused on the perception of the bankers themselves. The reason we chose to focus only on the bankers was because this perspective was missing in the literature and general perception about the financial sector. When the bankers’ oath was introduced the general perception was very negative about the oath. This perception was reflected in several newspaper articles. In one of the Dutch newspapers (The Volkskrant) the bankers ‘oath was described as ‘symbol politics’ or, in another article, as ‘an empty shell’.

We wanted to explore if the negative perception of society corresponded with the perception of the bankers. With this insight we could make modest statements about the contribution of the bankers’ oath to the cultural change in the financial sector for which the Dutch politics and the Dutch Banking Association are aiming.

The impact of the bankers’ oath, a qualitative research

To collect above insights we have conducted a qualitative research. By using this research method data is gathered through interviews. We have interviewed 18 bankers [private bankers, account managers, managers, risk officers] from four different Dutch banks. They all shared their experiences regarding the bankers’ oath and elaborated on what the bankers ‘oath means to them. The first striking outcome contains the fact that each banker looked at the bankers’ oath as something important for themselves and also as something significant for the entire financial sector. The oath had impact on the bankers in several ways.

The impact was most recognized during the actual introduction and implementation of the bankers’ oath. During the implementation process some bankers started to think more consciously about their profession and what the core of their profession is. One respondent described his emotions regarding the oath as follows: “The bankers’ oath helps you realize what the core of our profession is. Sometimes people ask me, ‘Why are you doing this work? And what is the essential nature of a banker?’ When I had to take the oath I asked myself these questions. This moment made me realize again that the banker’s profession is all based on trust” [respondent; risk officer].

Another outcome was that bankers, after taking the oath, started discussing the meaning of the oath together and also the meaning of the behavioral norms that are prescribed in the oath. This happened spontaneously, but within some banks discussion panels were organized. In these discussion panels’ bankers discussed the meaning of certain behavioral norms and how some norms could cause a dilemma in practice.

This respondent described what it meant for him, when they started talking about the oath: “First of all I was very skeptical about the oath, because I could not imagine it add value to the bank. (…) although after the oath was introduced we started talking about it within our team. This is when the oath started to mean something to me” [respondent; account manager].

The bank does not encourage any form of shared meaning around the oath

The above shows which impact the bankers’ oath had when the oath was introduced. It especially showed its impact on a local level. Unfortunately the impact stayed on a local level and did not turn into a form of shared meaning. Each of the bankers said they do not think about the oath anymore, because they are never reminded of the fact that they took the oath: “I simply do not think about the oath, because neither the bank nor my manager draws attention to the fact that we took the oath. I do see this as a missed opportunity” [respondent; private banker].

Another banker gave another reason why for him the oath did not have any influence on his behavior: “I did not know how to incorporate the norms of the oath in to my work, because there is no framework. For example one of the norms is described as ‘balancing the interests of the various stakeholders’, but it is unclear to me what it means exactly. Of course this sounds logical, but there is no framework which explains the exact meaning” [respondent; private banker].

The bankers ’oath lost his value, because top management played a passive role and did not encourage any form of the creating of a shared meaning. Therefore the question we have stated in the introduction ‘Does the bankers’ oath contribute to cultural change?’ should be answered negatively. In the current situation the bankers’ oath did not contribute to the cultural change within the financial sector.

Enable the value of the bankers’ oath to encourage cultural change

Our research showed the impact of the bankers’ oath and the possible contribution on the cultural change within the financial sector. But does this mean the bankers’ oath should be seen as a total failure? Or could the banks still take action to enable the value of the bankers’ oath? We would like to conclude this blog on a positive note and share some of our recommendations.

To structure our recommendations we used the Cultural Model of the organizational psychologist professor Edgar Schein. Schein (2004) identifies three distinct levels in organizational cultures:

  1. Artifacts and behaviors [‘to do’ level] – the visible and identifiable elements in an organization
  2. Espoused values [‘to think’ level] – these are the organization stated values and rules of behavior
  3. Assumptions [‘to be’ level] – are the deeply embedded, behaviors which are usually unconscious, but constitute the essence of culture

He states that culture can only be influenced if the intervention influences the ‘to be’ level of the people. During the implementation of the bankers’ oath the assumptions of some bankers were touched in some way. In the current situation though the bankers’ oath only touches the culture on the ‘to do’ level, because it only plays a small part in the onboarding process. After this moment the banker does not encounter the content of the oath in any way. To contribute to the cultural change, the oath should impact the assumptions, the ‘to be’ level, of the bankers. In our research paper we discuss several recommendations, which could help influence this level of culture. We want to elaborate on two recommendations.

  • The first recommendation we would like to suggest, relates to vision of the bank. The meaning of the bankers’ oath should become part of the vision of the bank, part of their higher goal, their core values, their audacious goal and their core qualities. If this vision is created in a participative matter, with voice of the bankers, the ‘level of assumptions’ could be touched and changed. A prerequisite for this is, after creation of this vision, a proper implementation and translation into strategy, HR policies, the brand, etc.
  • Our second recommendation refers to ‘learning spaces’. During the implementation of the bankers’ oath some banks introduced the so called learning spaces. In these learning spaces there were dialogue sessions held, where the content of the bankers’ oath was discussed and applied to the daily work practices of the bankers. During these learning spaces the assumptions of some bankers were moved. Another important aspect of cultural change occurred, which is the creation of shared meaning. We would like to suggest that these learning spaces should come back continuously throughout the year.

With these recommendations there could be new potential to breathe new life into the bankers’ oath.

If you are interested in reading the whole research paper please contact Rob van de Blaak (r.vandeblaak@samhoud.com)  or Muriel Weinstein (m.weinstein@samhoud.com)

Muriel Weinstein has been working as an intern at &samhoud since March 2016. She will graduate as a Master of Science in the field of Organizational Science and Change Management. In the context of her Master she has been conducting research on the bankers’ oath.
Rob van de Blaak has been guiding Muriel through this process with his knowledge of the financial sector and change management.

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