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Column: I work in a bank - and you've got us all wrong

Yes, banks housed deceitful, corrupt fat cats – but it was the rest of us who got the blame, writes bank worker Patrick Ryan.

Image: m.prinke via Flickr

I’M NOT A historian or an economist. I’m not even a banker. But I do work in a bank. And guess what? My colleagues and I – we’re not all bad.

It seems the Armchair Dissenters were out in force on again last week, barracking poor Alice Burke from the bleachers.  Her crime? Asking why Irish people are so darned apathetic. (Considering everything that’s going on – a timely question, no?)  If there’s one thing that sets my phasers to LOL it is snipers taking cowardly pot-shots from the long grass at those willing to take a stand for some cause or other: “Pull her down quick,” they say, “before she tells us something we don’t want to hear”.

Now I don’t know Alice Burke from Adam but I was delighted when, quite ironically, her column elicited a chorus of bellowing responses from the outraged ADs. ‘Who the hell do you think you are Alice Burke?’ they snorted, ‘to tell us what we’re really like. And from Cambodia too’, unwittingly proving Alice’s point succinctly: they’ll huff and they’ll puff and they’ll… probably just go back to watching X-Factor and eating dinner.

The ADs managed to drag themselves onto their laptops a few weeks ago too when the horrifying news broke that AIB staff were in line to receive ‘promotions and salary increases’. Howls of derision greeted the burgeoning reality that AIB was – shock – ‘still hiring new staff’, – gasp – ‘promoting existing workers’ and – horror – ‘raising salaries by ‘as much as 15 per cent’. “Makes me hate the banks even more” came one response: “This is revolting” came another.

‘A seedy, smoky cadre of elderly men’

One AD even suggested that “people should take out there [sic] deposits so there is a run on the banks in question…. Well I for one have lived and worked through a run on one bank. And let me tell you: it’s not a pleasant experience for anyone concerned. Especially for the staff.

The image I used to get when I heard the word ‘banker’ was that of a seedy, smoky cadre of elderly men, stuck in their old ways, unwilling to adapt to change, uncaring for their communities – who held incestuous ties between government and business – linking corrupt, inept officials with ruthless, captains of commerce: they were the people whose lobbying and interfering could affect government policy, tax and budgetary positions and whose world was characterised by insatiable greed and the accumulation of obscene wealth to the detriment of all other considerations.

Every now and then, these elderly doyens would be joined by a Gordon Gecko type character who symbolised a younger, even more ruthless and ambitious brand of capitalism – the personification of everything that was wrong about the modern developed world.

When I started working in Human Resources in a series of financial institutions in the mid 2000s, this older, traditional ‘cigars & brandy’ image of the banker was soon joined by another: the legions of young, uber-confident and ambitious college-educated twenty-somethings who joined the banking rat-race (and it really was a rat race, with everyone scrambling onto and up the career ladder as fast as they could) straight from business school.

‘The eager pretenders to the banking throne’

These kids were the eager pretenders to the banking throne – flashy but, alas, generally tasteless, sporting ill-fitting suits and high expectations, lavishing their spending on gaudy and kitsch wardrobes and apartments, their egos swinging from their huge credit card limits and spurred on, incessantly, by the utter madness of the spiralling bonus and reward system.

These kids were as duped by the system they worked for as much as anybody else who bought into it. These were the Bud Fox characters of Dublin and they were making more money than seemed natural: if you’ve seen Oliver Stone’s Wall Street (1987), you’ll know who I’m talking about.

Not one of these people, however – from Cigars and Brandy down to Bud Fox – would have ever stepped foot inside a bank branch.  They were bankers, yes, but bankers don’t work in banks. They work in discreet, air-conditioned offices, spending their days looking at arrays of screens with words such as ‘Bloomberg’ written on them.  They would rarely if ever have even set foot in a bank branch and they certainly don’t act as ‘tellers’ or ‘cashiers’ or ‘customer service agents’. They are not Bank Managers (although in times gone past they may have been).

They don’t answer phones or deal with customers (unless you’re a trader) and it’s unlikely that you’ll have ever even spoken to one; nor would you know where their nondescript offices are, or what their salaries or bonuses are like. Bankers don’t really exist in as far as say a Garda or a teacher does. They are essentially invisible.

There is a whole other world – a parallel universe – that exists side by side to yours and mine, wherein the bankers roam. It is populated by quiet leafy tree-lined avenues, expensive cars (often chauffeur driven), expensive lunches, private elevators, private clubs, private dinners and private parties. They are some of the ‘one per cent’ identified by the Occupy protests. And in their world, it makes absolutely no difference how anybody else is doing as long as the investments they make, make them money.

‘It became taboo to be associated in any way with banks’

Somewhere along the way, however, particularly after things started to go wrong and the bottom fell out of the economy and country, this rather distinct breed of banker became increasingly confused in our media and in our national discussions with another group of unsuspecting workers: bank staff.

It was now becoming taboo to be associated in any way with banks and banking and most of my colleagues in commercial banking (your local AIB or BOI for example) would intentionally lie about who they worked for or what their job was.  Not because there was anything wrong per se with what they did Monday-Friday, 9-5. But, rather, because they were afraid of being tarred with the same brush as those who were responsible for driving the car crash of our economy – Investment Bankers.

By working for BOI or AIB or PTSB, you were immediately placed in the same boat by the uninitiated as those traders and investors whose gambles didn’t pay off. And it wasn’t only awkward dinner party conversations that people tried to avoid. At work too, customers began to vent their ire in a very real and spiteful way – and quite justifiably too, it seemed.

But the problem for these customers was the ‘banker’ on the end of the phone or whose forced smiles greeted them at the bank counter were not the people to blame for the mess.  Those people and their masters are long gone, their dealings hushed up by Complicit Officialdom, their crimes not pursued by the DPP.

No, those left holding the keys were the average bank branch employees, the ones who will start their career earning anything from €18-20k.  Those whose bonuses – if they hung around for at least 12 months in the job – rarely  if ever exceeded 10-15 per cent (so after tax they still wouldn’t bring home anywhere near the average industrial wage).

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‘One colleague was kicked in the shins’

The ones who will invariably find themselves on a fixed-point salary scale which means barring the occasional promotion (officially extinct by all accounts since 2007), they will know exactly what they will earn in five, ten, 15 years time – in pitiful increments.

Those who – due to the evaporation of the jobs market – find themselves trapped performing mind-numbingly boring and repetitive tasks such as filing, administering accounts, processing payments and looking at spreadsheets of other people’s money – all day long. These are the people who – like me and many of my current co-workers – had simply gone to work each morning, genuinely unaware of what was lying in wait: what we now know to have been the quite unbelievable layers of conceit, deceit and corruption that were simmering just below the surface façade of pretty much every bank and financial institution in the western world.

These are also the people who have been instructed from on high to sell sell sell. And loan loan loan. Not to mention dealing with, at times, serious personal abuse from irate and irrational customers. (I recall one incident during a particularly busy period, where a colleague was kicked in the shins by a customer who simply couldn’t wait any longer to be seen).

So my question to the assembled masses is this: Is this (by which I mean snivelling dissent) really all we can come up with as a nation? Does anyone care – even a little bit more – about what is going on here? Well, the very fact that our courageous ADs are getting all hot and bothered over these matters of such colossal irrelevance says quite a lot really about how misguided our society has become.

If any of you mud-slingers are still reading this, may I suggest reading slowly, the embarrassingly courageous piece from Anne Burke (no relation to Alice) from a few weeks ago. And by all means go mad about that.

Or how about trying something constructive about it for a change?

Glass-Steagall anyone? Anyone?*

*a law that established the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) in the United States and introduced banking reforms, some of which were designed to control speculation.

Patrick Ryan works for a high street bank. His name has been changed.

About the author:

Patrick Ryan

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