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Banking job cuts and the curse of fake-nice company culture

Losing a job is never easy, but if you lose your job in a bank the transition is generally so abrupt that however much you’re aware of the inherent likelihood of being cut at some point in your career, it will come as a shock.

Duncan Lewin, a team development coach who’s worked both with people let go from banking jobs and with banks trying to restore their culture in the aftermath of layoffs, says the periodic reminders that banking is a transactional industry and that jobs are contingent on both individual and firm performance, create issues on both sides.

For employees, Lewin says the jarring experience leads to resentment. However much people know consciously that banks are harsh employers with no compunction about cutting where necessary, Lewin says people also still have a “deep human need to belong.”

Despite an awareness that they might be let go, bank employees therefore still try to form “meaningful and trusting relationships.” When they’re cut, and those relationships are severed, people leaving can become angry and sad. “I gave 7 years of hard work to that place…and left with an email of thanks,” complained one of Lewin’s clients.

For banks, on the other hand, Lewin says the revelation of the iron fist inside the velvet glove raises questions of cultural integrity. The danger is this engenders a culture of inauthenticity and artificial harmony, in which relationships between employees are seen as fake.

"A lot of people that I speak to say that the most dysfunctional teams and departments have this kind of artificial harmony," says Lewin. "Everyone is playing safe and pretending to be ok with each other. You get a situation where people are nice to each other's faces and then talk about each other behind their backs."

To avoid this, Lewin says banks (and other firms cutting jobs) need to work on creating "deep trust." This is easier than simply having a few off-sites and referring to each other as part of a family. People need to be able to express their vulnerabilities and doubts, says Lewin: "You want to get to a place where people are willing to challenge each other's opinions, and that can be very difficult where there are big threats to people's sense of stability." 

Notably, Citadel - the multi strategy hedge fund - and Citadel Securities - the electronic market making firm, make an effort to instill a willingness to express differing opinions in their employees from the start. Citadel interns are taught to speak out and express their views, even if they differ from those of senior staff. 

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AUTHORSarah Butcher Global Editor

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