My dark days in banking

Many years ago during a much darker period in my life I worked for a bank. I was fresh out of university with a 2:1 degree in philosophy and needed work. Terry and I had just moved to Newbury where he was about to embark on the Vodafone Graduate Training scheme. His career was about to take off, and I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life (aside from wanting to share it with Terry.) So I tarted up my rather insubstantial CV, put on a cheap suit and trotted down to the nearest recruitment agency.

As luck would have it, though with hindsight I’m not sure it was lucky at all, the local branch of Nat West was hiring. The fact that I had a degree all but guaranteed me an interview, and so I found myself sitting opposite the deputy branch manager answering insipid ‘competency based’ questions. While at university I’d held down a Saturday job at a jewellers for a year, so I was able to give my examples of “providing excellent customer service” and “paying close attention to detail” with relative ease.

Then came the part of the conversation where I said one of the stupidest things I’ve ever said in my life:

Deputy branch manager: A large part of this role will involve you reviewing customer accounts and suggesting more of the banks products to them. Is that something you think you could do?

Me: (airily) Oh yes! At the jewelers I was tasked with selling insurance policies to go with high value products and I was really good at it, so hitting sales targets is something I’m totally comfortable with.

If a time machine ever gets invented and I have opportunity to use it, I wouldn’t go back to see dinosaurs, or meet Shakespeare or clean up in the bubble. I would go back to that room on that sunny September morning in 2003 and punch myself repeatedly in the face until I stopped talking. It was true that I had sold crappy insurance policies to customers too stupid to realise what a waste of money they were. It was true that I was actually ok at it, but I hated doing it. I hated manipulating people, I hated implying that this extra expense was critical to their full enjoyment of the product, and I hated that I had to meet a target of selling this thing on 10% of my transactions. Saying I was comfortable with meeting selling targets had as much truth as saying I was comfortable with sticking pins in my eyes.

I suppose I could chalk some of this up to the naivety of a 21-year-old with little experience of the working world. I could also quite legitimately point out that having chosen to do a degree in philosophy, I didn’t have any obvious career options opening up. I needed to get an actual job, and in that instant I convinced myself that I would be ok at selling. I would have no problem silencing the moral qualms, and I would develop great transferable skills and make lots of lovely money.

Unsurprisingly they offered me the job on the spot. I know that sounds arrogant, but I was a smartly presented, well spoken, university educated person who had just professed to enjoying sales, and had produced credible examples of great customer service (that bit was true – I was and still am frickin’ awesome at Customer Service) so of course they gave me the job.

And guess what? The job sucked! The money sucked, the hours sucked, the Nat West/RBS corporate bullshit sucked, but most of all, being forced to sell unsuitable bank products to every customer sucked. The targets were virtually unreachable, even if you were actually quite good at persuading people to take out loans they didn’t need or shouldn’t have, and you had a gaping hole in your psyche where a sense of moral responsibility was meant to go. fortunately my ethical disgust, perhaps indignant at having been silenced during the interview, spent the next 6 and a half months screaming so loudly that I never got close to hitting any of my targets. So I am reasonably sure that no one has ever had to pay out any compensation as a result of my mis-selling anything.

On top of all of this I was also meant to be doing the job of a cashier, at which I was stupendous awful. My mental arithmetic is pretty dreadful at the best of times, and my till was repeatedly either over or under what it was meant to be. I can absolutely see why I was given the job in the first place, but how I kept it remains a mystery to me. When I handed in my notice six months later the manager warmly thanked me for my service and promised that if I ever wanted to return she’d be happy to take me back. All I can surmise from that is that I wasn’t the worst bank employee they’d ever seen, which is really quite depressing.

In the latest bout of complaints over the mis-selling of PPI, a former Nat West employee has written an account of being forced to persuade customers to take out these unsuitable policies. Reading this bought the whole experience flooding back with horrible clarity. I’m grateful I manged to get out when I did, and that I never got high up enough to have to sell the really nasty stuff like PPIs.

The other evening I was chatting to someone about the infamous Milgram experiment concerning the delivery of a lethal electric shock to a stranger on the instruction of an authority figure.
We both agreed that we would like to think in such circumstances that we would be brave enough to refuse, but accepted that statistically this was unlikely. While it might sound like a stretch to put electrocution in the same box as upgrading a bank account, I don’t think it’s totally off the mark to say that some of the same social dynamics are at play. I did things I felt were wrong because my superiors told me to, and I’m not proud of that. But I also think the experience has made me more wary, and accordingly I would hope I’m less likely to get stuck in such situations again.

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