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Bank employees speak out on ‘broken’ system

Union claims to have found the "root cause" of the banking scandals. Photo: Getty
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A broken incentives scheme is pressuring bank employees to act against the interests of customers, insiders have revealed.

Anonymous complaints from bank tellers and other staff published this week paint a disturbing picture of a workforce that is stressed, overworked, undertrained and ethically conflicted.

“To keep their jobs and feed their families, they are desperate and will do what is demanded of them – exceed their target – however they have to,” one bank worker wrote.

“The whole culture of selling products to customers even if they don’t really need them is not ethical,” wrote another.

“Sales target [is] more important than compliance and the customer,” wrote a third.

These and dozens of other damning survey responses collected by the Finance Sector Union (FSU) are proof, according to the union, that the “root cause” of the recent bank scandals is a remuneration system that forces employees to foist insurance, savings accounts, retail super funds, loans, credit cards and other products on customers who don’t need them.

Credit cards
Bank employees are pressured into forcing extra products on unwilling customers.

FSU acting national secretary Geoff Derrick told The New Daily that bank employees are “just as likely to be victims of the system as the consumers” because their bonuses and pay are linked to demanding sales targets.

“These are targets imposed from the highest levels of the industry and they are forced down the food chain to the front line,” Mr Derrick said.

“If we change the pay system and recognise banking and finance as a professional service where there is a best interest duty owed to the customer, and pay people accordingly, then we will go a long way to fixing the problems we currently face.”

The FSU’s call for reform coincided with a remuneration overhaul by British investment fund Woodford Investment Management, which this week abolished bonuses and put all staff on a flat salary. Its founder, Neil Woodford, said in a statement that bonuses are “largely ineffective” and can lead to “wrong behaviours”.

bank tactics

Financial sector regulation expert Dr Andy Schmulow, a lecturer at The University of Western Australia, said the problems complained of by bank employees were the “trickle-down effect” of a “wider incentive culture”.

“Counter staff are experiencing a trickle-down effect of a wider incentive culture which puts profits first, second and third, and where banks are measured only on profit and face no real sanctions, which is why compliance is either dispensed with or ignored.”

Dr Schmulow said the vertical integration of banks, whereby they distribute the very same financial products they create, has been a “disaster” for the industry and the nation.

“It leads to a misallocation of productive investment, either through poor choices foisted on consumers, or through consumers withdrawing from financial advice all together,” he said.

Warren Entsch and Malcolm Turnbull
Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch (left) is calling for a bank tribunal.

Outrage at the banks is building. Even some in the Turnbull government are calling for action. Liberal backbencher Warren Entsch has proposed the creation of a bank tribunal to hear the complaints of disgruntled customers who cannot afford court action. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has said he is receptive to the idea.

But the FSU’s Mr Derrick warned that focussing on a bank tribunal could “sidetrack” the push for a bank royal commission, which he said would be more likely to trigger an overhaul of banker pay.

The FSU survey, which is still collecting responses, was conducted in response to the Sedgwick review of banker remuneration currently being conducted by the Australian Bankers Association (ABA). It will close on 26 August.

ABA chief executive Steven Münchenberg responded to a request for comment by praising the Sedgwick review and dismissing a royal commission as “unnecessary”.

“An independent review is being conducted by a former Australian Public Service Commissioner into how bank staff are paid, to help ensure that when people are rewarded for selling products and services they are putting customers’ interests first. This review commenced on 12 July and the Finance Sector Union is a member of the Stakeholder Advisory Panel providing input into the review. For more information, visit betterbanking.net.au.”

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