HR in the Financial Services Sector

Written by: Annie Hayes
Published on: 12 Jul 2016

HR Finance

A new and appropriate climate of compliance in the financial sector has posed a challenge for HR to ensure that many of their positive initiatives are seen as more than just a box-ticking exercise. HR has worked hard to build up the sector’s reputation for being a great place to work and for those that thrive in a fast-paced, commercially focused and relationship based culture it offers a breadth of experience as well as a chance to push the HR agenda forward in an environment which is demanding more and more of HR’s services and liking them too.

What’s the culture like?

Harriet Oliver, Global Head of HR, EBS BrokerTec at ICAP, a leading market operator and provider of post trade risk mitigation and information services says you need to be prepared to have an enormous agenda and work at an incredibly fast-pace: “You have to be able to handle multiple issues. My day regularly gets de-railed and it’s important too that you are able to build good relationships because financial services is very much about that, there is a still a lot of face-to-face.”

Oliver who trained as a lawyer and was the senior counsel for ICAP before accepting an invitation from the CFO and COO to move to HR says the amount of work involved in running the HR function did surprise her: “I was stunned by the breadth of the HR agenda. When I joined HR five years ago I was frustrated by how apologetic it was but a lot has changed and with improvements in data analytics we are able to have better conversations with the business. It also helps that we have a new generation of CEOs coming in who have come from management school backgrounds and understand the importance of good leadership and organisational design. I really think that HR is about to have its moment.”

Which HR skills does the sector demand?

Stamina: Nick Ulycz, Head of HR in the UK for HSBC says that at the bank it is not so much a case of having to get a seat at the table it is more about managing a growing demand for HR services: “HR is pushing at an open door. The business wants more and more HR support and sometimes we struggle to live up to that and keep up with it.”

Commercial acumen: Oliver says it is really important that you are able to speak the language of the business. Her background in law gave her instant credibility but being ‘HR man and boy’ can also be as valid, explains Oliver who suggests it is about demonstrating a breadth of experience. “I have just had someone in the team who has completed a six-month placement in the risk function because they wanted to understand the business better.”

Ulycz adds: “I would say that you do need to be numerate and commercial, otherwise you will be shot down in flames.”

What are the HR challenges in the financial sector?

Managing change: The financial sector has seen huge change both in terms of digitalisation, customer expectations and compliance. At HSBC they have worked hard to change their operating practices in light of this.  Currently HSBC is focused on implementing the changes required as a consequence of the Independent Commission on Banking recommendation post the financial crisis.  These changes require banks such as HSBC to separate their consumer business from higher risk investment banking type activity. “The Head office of our new ring fenced bank will be in Birmingham,” says Ulycz It is a huge change for the bank and one they see as giving them the opportunity to reinvigorate their customer service culture. 

Ulycz adds: “We ran a focus group to find out why people were rejecting the corporate world as a place to work and the results showed us that many people don’t want to work for an organisation where you have to wear a tie or you can’t send a personal email during working hours. At HSBC we now focus on people management and leadership, whereas we used to focus upon processes and with this we are enabling our new generation of managers to embrace different cultural perspectives including flexible working.”

War for talent:  Oliver agrees with Ulycz that it has been hard to get people through the door. “Maintaining that pipeline of great graduates has been challenging. Working in the financial services sector is not as cool as it was and people are drawn to other sectors because of that but at ICAP, once we get them into speak to us and explain that they don’t have to go through eight layers before they get to the action they can see the great opportunity they can have here. It is very real and very fast.”

Ulycz adds that graduate skills have been a problem for HSBC: “I have found that some of the graduates that have come out of University five to seven years ago lack some transactional experience. They’ve never run a disciplinary for example. The people that have come from smaller organisations do tend to have a better range of diverse skills.”

Engagement: Ulycz admits to also being frustrated with the media continuously referring to banking in terms of high earning investment bankers only, but HSBC’s 45,000 strong workforce in the UK is made up of many thousands of operational employees supporting the business in front-line, call centre and customer service environments and, this element of banking is often forgotten. The changes the sector has gone through can be confusing to them: “In no way did operational front-line employees in the sector contribute to the financial crisis so it can be difficult for them to understand all these changes. Traditionally if you chose to work in a bank your mother and father would be very proud of you but that has changed and whilst new regulations are wholly appropriate they can be confusing.” Ulycz says that much of the prestige in banking has gone and part of HR’s challenge is to reinforce to staff the important role that banks play in society.

Oliver agrees and says: “It has been difficult that some of the great conversations we’ve been having including employee engagement could have been more positive but there is a different culture post crisis and I have to tell my HR team not to lose sight of the benefits of the right agenda or we’ll be in danger of it being little more than a box-ticking exercise.”

What do those in the sector say about working there?

“The diversity of the work you do is great. You can do pretty much anything from an HR perspective. You will be negotiating with unions on the one hand and chatting to the CEO on the other about a new engagement strategy. You get to cover a lot of breadth in the financial services.”

Nick Ulycz, Head of HR in the UK for HSBC