Doing More with Fewer Workers

Banks Seek Drive and Sales Emphasis, Survey Finds

With their ranks diminished by layoffs, many of the nation's top banks are looking for ways to increase the productivity of the workers who remain.

That is a principal finding of a survey by the Center for Human Resources in Banking in Park Ridge, Ill. The center polled 151 human resource executives at banks with assets of more than $500 million.

"Executives are seeking [employees] who exhibit high levels of integrity, service orientation, and job-related mental abilities," said John W. Jones, director of the center. "They want to hire and retain managers and professionals who are strong decision makers and effective communicators."

Employers' Wish List

Among other survey findings:

* Banks want all employees to be more sales oriented.

* Employees at all levels are expected to come up with ideas to improve productivity.

* Privacy guidelines are making it increasingly difficult to check references of job applicants.

A Focus on Sales

Because of increased competition and more demanding, less loyal customers, many banks are encouraging employees to be more sales oriented.

According to the survey, more than 94% of bank human resource executives conduct sales training programs for their employees. Nine out of 10 have instituted incentive plans and 86% look for proof of sales ability during the hiring process.

Banks want to hire people who can identify customers' financial needs and then direct them to the right people within the bank, Mr. Jones said. "It's integrity selling versus manipulative selling. It means being an empathetic listener to customer needs."

The future bank manager, according to Mr. Jones, will be one who knows how to recognize and reward sales ability and how to train all employees to handle sales responsibilities.

Indeed, the survey found that 86.7% of respondents said they have restructured jobs to allow more employees to sell financial services.

Customer service representatives - whether in a branch or at the other end of a phone line -- are being taught to sell bank products.

The survey also found that banks use several methods to elicit employee input on how to improve productivity. More than four-fifths of banks responding to the survey let their employees have the opportunity to give feedback during management-led discussions.

Employees' Ideas Solicited

But the reliability of such feedback depends on an open, accepting, and nonpunitive climate, according to J. Kenneth Torreyson, senior vice president and director of human resources at Wachovia Corp., and chairman of the advisory board for the survey.

"I can't speak for all banks, but here at Wachovia, we create an environment to make it happen," Mr. Torreyson said. "Our supervisory training stresses three points: listen, display empathy, and allow the employee to help solve the problem. New supervisors learn this about three seconds after they become supervisors."

Mr. Torreyson also credits Wachovia's success in getting employee input to other tools such as attitude surveys and suggestion boxes.

Attitude Surveys

Attitude surveys are an anonymous way for employees to make suggestions for productivity improvements and to express their opinions.

According to the human resource executives who responded to the survey, attitude surveys also offer the opportunity to make branch or department comparisons and to chart changes over time.

Despite the cost, and the considerable planning, execution, and feedback time involved, half of the executives reported that their banks employ some form of employee survey program.

Over one-third of the respondents not currently using surveys are considering adding them in the next three years.

Over half of the respondents (51.7%) use suggestion boxes.

No matter which approach they use, 75% of survey respondents see value in managers receiving feedback from subordinates.

Identifying management potential may be one of the big reasons. The lower-level employee who consistently offers well-thought-out suggestions is often considered promotable.

Measuring Potential

Although banks have historically promoted from within -- placing a high premium on those experienced with the bank's culture and operating systems -- only half of the survey respondents have a formal system for identifying employees with management potential.

Of those with a formal system, performance appraisals have the greatest popularity among respondents (48.6%). One-fourth use paper-and-pencil tests, and 20.3% use assessment centers.

Banks, and most other companies, have traditionally relied on outside references for newly hired employees. But, according to the survey, banks are having an increasingly tough time checking references.

Four-fifths of the respondents have found it "somewhat" or "very" difficult to obtain references on job candidates, and the majority (61.6%) believe that references are more difficult to get now than they were three years ago.

Former Employers Are Leery

"Most reference providers are reluctant to give any information, due to fears of defamation or slander," Mr. Jones said. "Privacy is such a big issue; even verifying dates of employment can be invasive. That's how a lot of lawsuits are started."

He suggested that the trend will be away from subjective evaluations.

"Paper-and-pencil tests -- the ones that actually measure job-related knowledge -- are accepted as the best tool to measure job potential," Mr. Jones said. "Right now, they're most often used as a backup to a supervisor rating. But what's going to happen in the future will be more paper-and-pencil testing, because it's accurate, fair to minorities, cost effective, and objective."

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