Warmth and the Boundary Line

What beautiful scenery in the present-day banking halls!  The architectural design and décor of the offices, especially the branches, now receive much more attention than in the past. This is understandable, due to the keen competition in the industry. The serene environment creates an attraction and influences some individuals or corporate entities’ choice for a business relationship. This also makes the work setting conducive for employees, in addition to the training programmes which equip them with the relevant skills for roles or responsibilities.

For instance, the front-line staff (customer advisors, cashiers, relationship officers etc.) who usually have face-to-face interactions with customers are trained to imbibe Customer Service skills. Indeed, they receive an orientation to exhibit human attributes such as empathy, friendliness, care, diligence, affection, passion and tact toward the customers. As a customer-focused service industry, they also learn the culture and basic etiquette for resolving customer issues or complaints. These attitudes of warmth, as one may call them, are geared toward enhancing customers’ experience in a bid to retain them as partners in the banking relationship.

It is a fact that most of the banks, if not all, due to the high cost of operations resort to hiring many of their front-line staff through recruitment (employment) agencies. Though the job descriptions of these outsourced staff (head-to-head) in relation to their compatriots directly employed by the banks themselves are the same, their remunerations are however lower. Whether it is a plan or strategy, it has also become unwritten policy to hire these recruits – especially young and bubbly ladies who are fair in complexion – for front-line duties.

In fact, much of their working hours involve engagements with customers to whom they provide the necessary information on the banks ‘services. Some of the tasks they perform include collecting cash deposits, giving customers their account balances, handling cash transfers, cross-selling products and services such as bancassurance, loans, mortgages etc. Since the banking business is highly regulated, bank officers are generally required to always comply with the code of ethics.

Code of Ethics

It is gratifying to note that banks adopt their in-house code of ethics which provide basic principles to guide employees’ behaviour in the line of duty. There are issues which border on confidentiality, conflict of interest, gifts or gratuities and how they can handle them. It is worth averring that the front-line officers, as social animals, with time tend to develop a strong affinity for some customers and make good friends with them – and therefore face the ethical dilemma of how to distinguish personal encounters from the business relationship.

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This issue comes at the backdrop of the fact that these employees have big performance targets to achieve on a periodic basis in terms of assets and liabilities (i.e. loans & deposits) based products. Hence, they use the existing customers as one of the channels for referrals to get new accounts. The boundary lines seemingly become blurred when the officers act as the customers’ financial advisors and friends, thus attending social events the customers organise. Indeed, the benefits of these meetings to the officers are prospecting and winning new businesses while mingling with friends to de-stress.

Most often, the officers – especially the outsourced staff, threatened by job insecurity and unfair conditions of service – use these occasions as avenues to establish opportunities secure their future when they are disengaged from the employment contract. They are softly entrapped by the warmth of the big account-holders. Thus, as they gradually appreciate other aspects of life with these customers, the boundary lines between them virtually become non-existent. They transcend into lovebirds, business partners or what have you. The bank enjoys from these relationships when the big deposits continue to hit the accounts. But there are risks implications when criminal intentions trickle in after crossing the boundary line.

Risk Perspective

You will agree with me that banks (financial institutions) have reason to issue disclaimer notices on their workers who supposedly engaged in wrong-doing. When you establish the facts, you will realise that the majority of these suspects are front-line officers (including tellers) recruited through third-parties (employment agencies). Issues relating to money-laundering, connivance with bad customers/security guards to rob the banks usually top the list of wrongs and the related crimes attributed to them.

Sometimes, banks have cause to retract some of the disclaimer notices. I witnessed one of such cases in the dailies, when one of the reputable banks disclaimed a female employee only to be served with a rejoinder by the young lady’s lawyers. The bank later withdrew the notice with an apology to the affected ex-employee. Indeed, Human Resource Policies could have disclaimer clauses to deal with such incidents when they occur, but it appears we swiftly kill a fly with a sledgehammer with those publications when criminality or otherwise can only be established by the law enforcement agencies.

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We agree with the fact that depositors’ funds and banks’ reputation must be jealously guarded at all times, but in attempting to do that we can end up exposing ourselves to avoidable legal risk and its consequences.

Fair Labour Practices

The purpose of this write-up is not to denigrate employment firms as conduits for hiring wrongdoers. Indeed, they are recognised by law and their contribution to the labour market is worth appreciating. We know they conduct background checks on personnel during the recruitment process, and banks do not compromise on this requirement. But the fact banks are quick to inform the public that such persons were engaged through the employment agencies brings to the fore the need to tie-off loose ends to restore sanity in their operations.

The strategy to keep a tight rein on costs and maximise profits for shareholders vis-à-vis engaging cheap labour in the wake of high unemployment in the country is inherently creating latent discrimination between employees at one side and the others. This is becoming prevalent, and to my mind causes the outsourced staff to commit fraudulent activities.

These negative practices are, however, not justifiable across the board. The good word in Proverb 16:8 admonishes that better a little with righteousness than much gain with injustice”. This should prick employees’ conscience. Regarding employers, with special reference to those in the private sector, they must also uphold the cardinal principle of fairness to all employees in order to discourage them from committing the (workplace) related frauds.

Dear readers, I am once again grateful to you for your inspiration and always enjoy your company.  May the light of His face shine upon us all. God Bless!

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