Banking’s response to #MeToo: Training employees to speak up

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Taking a cue from the cultural moment, the banking industry is attempting to revamp a corporate formality that too often has been fodder for sophomoric office jokes — sexual harassment training.

Employers in recent months have dusted off their human resources policies, looking at ways to improve their handling of harassment claims after the #MeToo movement brought to light allegations of sexual harassment in media, politics and other industries. Financial services — known for its intense focus on compliance — is in better shape than most when it comes to employee protections, according to HR experts.

But it’s one thing for bankers to say they have airtight codes of conduct, and another thing altogether to ensure employees in every corner of their organizations uphold high standards. So Ally Financial, Regions Financial and others are taking new approaches to training, in some cases even ditching the antiquated reviews of sexual harassment policies and, instead, giving employees strategies to call out demeaning behavior when they see it, experts said.

“This won’t shock you, but training doesn’t really work for people who are likely to be harassers,” said Joelle Emerson, CEO of Paradigm, a diversity and inclusion firm in San Francisco.

Emerson is best known for helping big tech firms, such as Twitter and Lyft, tackle diversity issues, but her clients also include three Fortune 500 banks, which she declined to name. In response to a growing demand, her company has started designing a curriculum to help employees speak up — even in situations that may not seem egregious, such as overhearing a sexist joke, but that may be indicative of larger cultural problems.

“The question is: How do we empower everyone who sees behavior that feels inappropriate?” Emerson said. “How do we all play a role in speaking up?”

Training employees to think of themselves as duty-bound witnesses is the “new frontier” in sexual harassment training, according to Amy Polefrone, president of HR Strategy Group in Baltimore. Her firm, which focuses on training and crisis management, counts several mortgage servicing companies among its biggest clients.

“If I overhear an employee being harassed in the workplace, it’s going to have the most impact if I go and talk to the person who made the inappropriate comment,” Polefrone said.

It’s hard to say exactly what steps big banks have taken to address the national focus on sexual harassment. Most have not been forthcoming on the matter.

Instead, the financial services industry has largely benefited from avoiding the spotlight. With the exception of the recent firing of Omeed Malik, a managing director at Bank of America, the industry has kept itself out of the headlines amid a widespread public airing of harassment claims.

After Malik’s ouster, American Banker asked the top 20 banks what policies or programs, if any, they have changed since the rise of the #MeToo movement last year. Fifteen banks responded, mostly offering broad corporate statements touting their commitments to equality.

Among those that responded, however, a few described concrete steps they have taken in response to #MeToo. For instance, Ally has beefed up its employee training programs, adding a “sensitivity training” course, as well as a session called “difficult conversations,” which helps employees talk about sensitive topics.

“We’ve also worked to bring a balanced perspective to the courses, so that we don’t create an environment where people disengage because they are afraid to offend each other,” said Kathleen Patterson, chief human resources officer at the Detroit company.

At Regions Financial, in Birmingham, Ala., Chairman and CEO Grayson Hall sent a memo to all employees in December, reiterating the company’s commitment to creating a workplace that’s free from discrimination and harassment. Regions also created a mandatory training course on sexual harassment, called “Respect in the Workplace,” that employees can complete online.

“Our executive leadership team is taking an active role to maintain a workplace culture where all associates are treated with dignity and respect,” a spokeswoman said, declining to share Hall’s memo.

Additionally, several months before the #MeToo movement took hold in October, Wells Fargo centralized its human resources unit, according to a spokeswoman. The change — made as the company reorganized following its phony-accounts scandal — should help ensure that harassment cases are quickly addressed, she said.

During a recent panel discussion on bank culture, CIT Group CEO Ellen Alemany said a key reason the banking industry hasn’t had a #MeToo moment of its own is that it addressed sexual harassment issues head-on two decades ago, after the infamous “boom-boom room” lawsuit at Smith Barney in the mid-1990s.

“I think that the industry, to give it credit, was terrific in terms of sensitivity training, making sure you have proper codes of conduct, actually having public firings if someone has demonstrated inappropriate behavior,” Alemany said.

Still, while banks may have come a long way, there are plenty of factors that put the industry at risk, according to Jonathan Segal, an employment attorney at Duane Morris who works with financial institutions.

Segal was appointed to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force on sexual harassment, which issued a report in 2016 outlining things that may put a workplace at risk. Banks display some of those characteristics, he said.

They include having a workforce with many young employees, who may lack the self-confidence to resist unwelcome advances; the presence of alcohol during and around work hours, such as while entertaining clients; and a decentralized organizational structure, where corporate offices are physically removed from front-line employees.

“Banks by definition are decentralized,” Segal said, pointing to their vast retail branch networks.

After the rise of the #MeToo movement, banks and other financial firms have embarked on audits of their corporate policies and, just as important, begun exploring ways to establish a “culture of respect,” according to Segal.

“The lack of civility creates a fertile soil for harassing behavior,” he said.

Polefrone, from HR Strategy Group, said she has seen more of a shift in employees’ willingness to talk about sexual harassment over the past four months than she has seen in the past 25 years in human resources. It’s an outcome of the recent public reckoning.

“We no longer talk about Demi Moore and Michael Douglas in ‘Disclosure,’ ” Polefrone said, referring to the 1994 movie about sexual harassment in the workplace. “There’s too much reality going on.”

Polefrone added that she has noticed another important change, as well. While conducting a sexual harassment training session at one of her clients’ offices in recent weeks, she didn’t hear anyone make a snide or sarcastic comment on the topic.

“I always used to get these kind of dumb jokes,” she said.

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Sexual harassment Corporate ethics Workplace culture Training Regional banks Regions Bank Ally Financial Wells Fargo CIT Group Women in Banking