April 2021 – “Make sure you take me where they have the good meat!” she said, buckling her seatbelt. It was a brisk Saturday morning in April, halfway between the bitter cold of winter and the smooth warmth of summer. The sounds of South London filled the air; mixed dialogue of distant tongues drifted over the car, pierced by sirens and the occasional blast of a horn. “Yes, Mum, I’ll take you where they have the good meat.” I pulled the car out of our estate and started routing toward, according to my Mum, the only butchers that mattered in London… a full hour drive away. “You back there, have you got your seat belt on?” My Mum shouted to my adult sister; I had taken her along because, well, if I had to go to the butchers, then so did she. “Yeah, do you have your seat belt on?” I quipped as well, smirking as I looked back through the mirror. “Shut up PB…” she mumbled, shooting me a sideways look whilst buckling her belt. I chuckled as I turned the corner, my Mum monologuing about the inflation of lamb prices and how we mustn’t forget her Yorkshire Tea. I waved an older across the road and rolled slowly up to the traffic lights. I looked back at my sister as I rolled through the traffic light across the junction into the next street. She was staring pensively out the window, her earphones glued to her head, music bleeding out into the car as we approached a line of traffic.
“Why’s there all this traffic?” my Mum asked, taking a break from her speech. “I’m not sure. Maybe someone has broken down.” I responded. I opened my window and perched out slightly, the chill wind attacking my face as I looked down the hood of the car. I counted three cars, and a cyclist wedged in front of us, but the 4×4 at the front was stopped for no apparent reason. I looked at my rear-view mirror where cars had now joined the queue, impatient horns ringing out. “Why are these people not moving?” my sister asked. I didn’t respond as I took another look at the car holding everyone up, a tirade of abuse erupting around it. Just as I did, the door swung open violently, as though responding to everyone’s grievances. From it emerged a darkly clothed, hooded youth, wearing a balaclava that hid his features but not his ill intentions. As he stepped onto the road, he pulled a blade out the size of his arm, brandishing it towards the cyclist, who promptly dismounted his bike as he realised what was going on. “Ahh shit.” I cursed in a low voice.
“Oh my God, a knife!” My Mum screamed, fear cracking her voice as she looked on in shock. The cyclist started backtracking as he looked behind him, his braids flicking against his head as he opened his jacket and brandished a weapon that wouldn’t be out of place on a farm cutting cane. He waved it as he stepped back cautiously. This was happening two streets from my house, with my Mum and sister in the car. It was a Mexican standoff on an uncaring South London Street. I looked back at cars ringing their horns, not seeing what was happening. My sister had her hand over her mouth, and my Mum whispered prayers as the two youths stepped closer towards the car. The cyclist was trying to keep his distance, eyes wide with fear as he slashed with the panic of a man that was quickly running out of space. His aggressor was walking him mercilessly down the narrow street. He looked experienced, deliberate, bearing the look of someone who’d done this before. They reached the car in front of us when, it seems out of desperation, the cyclist went to open the door of the vehicle in front. The shrill scream of the driver was muffled by her grey metal vessel, yet the terror in her face was clear to see, eyes bulging as she instinctively grabbed her door to counter her intruder. Yet, at that moment, her panic had shifted to the cyclist. He desperately tried to open the locked door, but the loose pull of the handle wouldn’t yield and give him the freedom he yearned for. His attacker seized his chance, throwing his weight through his shoulder as he swung his sword at the cyclist. There was a flash of metal cutting through the air on its way to extending another chapter of this South London street’s bloody tale.
April 2021. The Monday after – “So PB, how was your weekend? Get up to anything exciting?” A metal glint in the Spring sun, my mum muttering prayers and the aghast look of my sister all raced through my mind. “Nah, Steven. Quiet weekend for me, pretty chilled. How was yours?”…
Today – It’s been over a year since the widespread outrage and condemnation of the murder of George Floyd in the US. In the following months, I watched as companies globally put out strikingly similar statements (are they all using the same PR people?) regarding the longstanding systemic oppression of black people and the rapidly incoming changes to their recruitment and diversity goals. I’ll be honest; I was initially very sceptical of the whole thing. I fobbed it off as knee jerk reactions by firm’s whose hands were forced into making statements because the company next door did. As I was pulled into meetings with operating people and directors regarding: “how we go about fixing the problem”, I stressed that even if the firm had good intentions in hiring a wider variety of people, there was still one glaring issue. How does one build an inclusive corporate workplace, and an environment where more people feel like they belong, which brings me back to my story. Now, I like Steven; we get along well. We often chat about a range of topics, share details about our families, I even went to his wedding, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him what I’d seen that weekend. Why? Well, aside from it being a pretty heavy topic on a Monday morning, it’s a stark reminder of the chasm between myself and Steven in where we came from and what’s commonplace in our communities. The stabbing of a kid half my age around the corner from my Mums block isn’t something that happens to bankers. It doesn’t stack up against the overpriced brunches and cocaine-fuelled nights in Annabelle’s that fill other bankers’ weekends. This is why retention is so hard because many people from non-traditional backgrounds hide their weekends and personal lives like they’re shameful in the workplace. We conceal our realities because they don’t fit into the polished archetypes of the corporate world. Our lives can seem too vulgar, too distasteful to mention to colleagues, and that’s an exhausting task, so before you know it, we quit. Often this happens before we’ve had a chance to make an impact and (even more sadly) without ever being ourselves and bringing our true potential to the workplace. That is a big shame. The question is, has anything improved since BLM went global? Does it look like there’ll be a genuine change in the culture and setup of the corporate landscape? I’ll attempt to unpack some of this during the post.
To understand the extent of the challenge movements like BLM face in improving inclusion at an institutional level, you must first understand how the issue operates. One of the overriding problems is fragmentation in the corporate workplace. Honestly, trading floors in Finance have more cliques than the Mean Girls and are just as petty. Because of the way banks have hired historically, the firms are lined with people with similar life experiences and socio-economic circles. People generally have a greater affinity toward helping those of a similar background and are more incentivised to enable each other to achieve their common goals. Among other issues, this gives rise to the infamous game that is workplace politics. Despite its shenanigans affecting everyone, the problem is that minorities are often at the worst end of it; you need only look at the gender and ethnicity pay gaps to validate this. Side note, the problem doesn’t only span ethnicity; it spans social class. As I’ve mentioned previously, working-class white individuals can often traverse a similar path. This draws even deeper divisions between people you don’t immediately identify with in the first place and eventually creates an overall feeling of resentment towards the establishment you work for. Now the pressure of BLM has forced some immediate responses. There have been waves of mandatory sensitivity training, targets set for diversity hires, and more people are careful of what they say than I ever remember. But whilst these are welcome changes, it’ll take time to see whether this actually manifests in hiring, pay, and progression metrics improvements. There’s another angle I wanted to address with inclusion, one that feeds into many of the issues I’ve just mentioned.
There’s a social aspect to most jobs that dictates a reasonable amount of your career progression. If you can’t bring your “full self” to work, you can’t really connect with people in a meaningful way. This limits your ability to build relationships with people essential for your career progression, act as sounding boards when you have issues, and generally make you feel welcome and encouraged in the workplace. Despite it being a tricky job, companies have a responsibility to educate themselves in the different socio-economic backgrounds of the people they hire and implement a culture that ensures people can bring as much of their life experiences to work as possible. To be clear, this doesn’t mean employees have to all be best friends, but I see little point in hiring from diverse backgrounds if employees then don’t feel like being themselves. This is still a massive issue for me even with the current BLM fervour because corporates need to undo decades of status quo for a changing demographic of employee. Now, as cultures in the UK become more intertwined and agendas like BLM push on, the hope is that employees of different backgrounds work their way up the corporate ladder into more senior positions. This should ultimately provide a reference point for others that being and bringing your entire self to the office can be done without affecting your career prospects. Before I wrap up, there’s one final point I’d like to touch on.
Finance can be an aggressive place. You have hyper-competitive personnel who are ultimately in the game to maximise their pay. I’m acutely aware of this dynamic, and in fact, it’s one of the reasons I enjoy it, given I love competition. However, I am also highly cognisant that I’m a black man. A tersely worded email, a legitimate refusal to do pointless work outside my mandate, a debate over something I think is nonsensical. These can all come across very differently from a black man than anyone else. Being right is the default for many people who come into the corporate workplace; they’ve spent most of their lives being told they’re the shit. To be told otherwise by a black man, Asian woman, or anyone they have rarely been told they’re wrong by can seem blasphemous. Unfortunately, I’m aware that as a black man, I can be seen as coming across as quite aggressive or rude by some people if I deliver a message with the same tone that I might give my boy if he tells me Arsenal are a top team. I realise that even on apparent issues of incompetence from other people, I cannot react in the same way many others may do, well, because I’m a black yout and acting wild at work will make me look like a crazy black yout. I’ve had conversations with girls where there is a similar dynamic; there is a feeling that if they are too pushy or aggressive, they are perceived as “a bitch”. Now, this is Finance specifically, so there will be a level of aggression and forwardness that doesn’t exist in other industries. However, the pressure built amongst myself and colleagues to maintain a cool front despite wanting to be more forceful can often become overbearing. Over the years, I’ve gotten better with this, mainly because I’ve realised something. Unless I’ve genuinely been disrespected, work problems are work problems. I’ve lived a life where I’ve had more significant issues than what happens at work, which is not always the same for other people in the office. This is a realisation that can help many people from non-traditional backgrounds because it gives some context to how many people behave at work. Their work is the most critical thing in their life. Whilst I’m passionate about work, there’s no amount of money you can pay for me to go to the extent that some people in Finance go to further their careers. Even in the instances where I feel undermined, there’s a simple way to address it. I just stand up and walk over to the person and ask what the issue is and how we resolve it, or I walk them off the floor and have a chat with them. Most people are keen to deescalate work situations once they see you’re not intimidated by disagreements. However, this often comes with some element of experience and confidence in your ability. Still, it’s relevant especially for managers to understand that tone is essential when addressing people from different demographics. The same instruction you deliver to a white male employee in his 40’s shouldn’t necessarily be communicated in the same way to a black female in her 20’s.
And thus, my rant for today concludes. The bottom line, I guess, is, whilst things have started to change and improve in the last year and a half, it’ll take some time before the changes really make a difference in hard-set in industries like Finance. But that doesn’t mean we can’t dream.
The Poor Banker