"Banker" isn't a bad word, but it sure doesn't feel that way right now. These days, for the first time since the Great Depression, bankers rank lower than lawyers for respect and integrity in national surveys.
The midterm elections were an expression of anger against Wall Street and big banks, and against Congress and the Obama administration for bailing them out.
Senior executives at one regional bank told me recently that they are facing anger, rude remarks and ostracism from their neighbors, friends and clients. Never mind the bank's pristine reputation for growth and community involvement — nor the part those executives had played in helping build wealth for their clients and the community. The Great Recession overshadows all. Wall Street and the banks are at the center of the blame, and bankers — regardless of their culpability — are viewed as part of the problem.
We all know why this is happening and, certainly, how that makes us feel. But do we know what to do about turning that perception around?
Before we get to that, here is a bit of context:
My parents grew up in the Midwest during the Great Depression. When I was growing up, they often told stories of that period — of bankers who sold apples on the corner or jumped from windows, unable to face their financial and reputational ruin. My own father, who grew up in a community banking family in Missouri, left college at 21 to close the family bank, selling the family's assets and borrowing to pay off all the depositors (this being before federal deposit insura nce was enacted). Our family's cardinal principles were integrity and reputation; my father could have closed the bank and left the depositors in the lurch, but he didn't. Instead, my family paid off every single depositor — and put themselves in debt to do it.
My father never finished his last semester of college. Instead, he worked to support his widowed mother and repay the debt. Years later, he became president of a community bank, where he held to those same principles. As his daughter, I grew up in a world where "banker" — a good word — meant service, integrity, community involvement and financial prudence.
Today most of the people working in financial services are "good bankers." But public opinion and media coverage of the worst of our industry has reflected on everyone. Trust is the basis for all financial systems, and it begins with individual integrity.
I have hope that, in time, the kind of integrity I learned growing up will be the salve that heals us. Here are a few ideas for getting back on track:
• Be honest with yourself about sharing blame for the financial crisis. This means acknowledging your role in making or facilitating suspect loans, not speaking up about bad practices or participating in programs such as NSFs that targeted vulnerable consumers.
• Be honest and humble in dealing with your clients, co-workers, regulators and the public. Apologize, empathize and work to make things better. Simple acknowledgement of the role the industry played will go a long way toward re-establishing trust.
• Actively support financial reforms at the national, local and firm level to address the practices that contributed to the financial crisis. Support best practices, be respectful of regulators, contribute to industry association policies and best practices and be proactive with the media. Though it is true that some regulations are better than others, a "no regulations" stance undermines the precious little trust consumers do have in the financial services system. The same can be said about the new consumer protection agency: Though it may not be ideal for your institution, public criticism of government efforts to curb risk can easily be construed as anti-consumer.
• Help your customers get their financial footing with consumer literacy programs, loan modifications, counseling and mentoring. Check your programs, products and services to ensure they really do serve consumers' best interests.
• Be proactive in your community by helping people who are unemployed and in need. Offer career counseling, part-time jobs, education or whatever is needed to acknowledge and address their problems. Form partnerships with community foundations and food depots to help victims of the recession get back on their feet.
• Create a culture of service, thoughtfulness and integrity within your company and its individual departments. One person can make a difference. Start with incentives, training, rewards, recognition and counseling.
• Develop internal programs for your employees. Problems such as internal fraud emerge primarily from disgruntled and angry employees. Understand that the crisis affects them, too.
• Acknowledge the impact the recession has had on your own family and on your own sense of purpose. Talk with your spouse and children about what happened and what you, personally, as well as your company, are doing to help make things better.
Negative perceptions will linger as long as the economy flounders. While this continues, the ideas above can help re-establish trust and your own personal relationships.
This is not only being a good corporate citizen; it is also good business. The word "banker" is not a bad word. Together, we can prove it.