'The cost of banking on Eastern promises' : an ethnographic study of the impact of changing bank strategies on employees
Banking is a major employment sector, which has experienced phenomenal growth over the last decade. Following the de-regulation of the financial marketplace and the entry of ‘new players', the industry has suffered from an almost ruinous internal struggle between its traditional, gentlemanly ethos (Clarke and Vincent, 1989) and the enforced adoption of aggressive sales and marketing strategies (Knights and Tinker, 1997). My research has investigated the various ways that ‘change’ (particularly strategic change consequential to the piecemeal adoption of ‘Japanese-style' systems of working and management -'HRM, TQM and lean production) have been met, experienced, negotiated, and to some extent contested, by branch-based employees working for Bank UK (one of the historic 'big four' clearing banks). Data was gathered through varying periods of participant observation in seven branches of Bank UK over two years, supplemented by group and individual interviews with managers and staff. A key informant was later recruited, who added both depth and a greater understanding of raw data. My thesis suggests that changing strategies (particularly those introduced in order to strengthen market position and expand sales opportunities) have created multiple paradoxes in the management and organisation of work in Bank UK, mostly through issues of cost At the same time as attempting to drive through a whole raft of changes that clearly involved increasing employee participation and commitment through teamworking, Kaizen activity, performance related pay and individual sales bids, the bank had been concerned to decrease operating costs in an attempt to improve key economic ratios. Between 1999 and 2000, Bank UK reduced staff expenditure by £72 million by shedding 7,300 employees. This significant loss of staff created huge difficulties in the everyday operation of branches, resulting in growing customer dissatisfaction with the service on offer, at the same time that weekly individual and branch sales targets were introduced, which clearly demanded extended customer interaction. The composition of the workforce in Bank UK has become increasingly flexible (both numerically and functionally) and two-tiered. Permanent staff enjoy the traditional 'perks' of employment, including performance related pay, whilst the growing number on 'casual' or flexible contracts (mostly ex-permanent staff) do not. Yet, paradoxically my research reveals that Bank UK's successful integration of sales and marketing strategies into the branch network can be generally attributed to the attitudes of its ‘casual' workforce who appear to have made a bigger contribution in terms of sales results and commitment to flexible working practices than their 'permanent' colleagues, despite lacking the same level of recognition and reward.