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An organisational psychologist takes a look at our ‘voices of finance’ | Joris Luyendijk

We asked a chartered psychologist to interpret our series of interviews with finance workers – here are her insights

An experiment. This blog now features more than 50 posts, including more than 40 interviews with people in finance. How do these Voices of Finance sound to an expert in organisational psychology – the corner of social science that tries to make sense of people’s behaviour in complex organisations and systems?

I put this to Chantal Gautier, who is a chartered psychologist and senior lecturer in organisational psychology at the University of Westminster. Gautier went over the interviews and came back with one major caveat and four insightful observations about how people in finance seem to be initiated and “socialised”, the occurrence of sexism, the group’s subtle transactions and exchanges, and some of their psychological coping mechanisms. Gautier, originally from Australia and a resident of London since 1996, also said: “It is striking how several interviewees talk about ‘overwork’ and ‘extreme hours’, while others refer to ‘face-time’.” As intern #1 at an investment bank put it:

“The work is very cyclical. Sometimes you wouldn’t have any work to do and you would be doing what we call ‘face-time’, which is essentially looking like you’re working hard until the last member of your team leaves.”

In the words of the competition lawyer:

“In many instances there is a real need to work late, but ‘face-time’ is also well-known. Colleagues stick around, even if they don’t really have anything to do that can’t wait until the next day.”

This could be due to differences in culture and working practices. “If you’re still in the office by 9pm in Scandinavian and Nordic European countries, you’re seen as inefficient,” says Gautier. “Either the work is too difficult for you so you can’t finish on time, or you took on too much – meaning you don’t know how to plan.”

Gautier’s major caveat concerns methodology. Finance is a closed world, and this blog’s methodology is an academic’s nightmare. The sample of interviews is fundamentally biased as most interviewees volunteered through this website, while the rest is in my extended network of colleagues and acquaintances. Second, knowing nothing about finance at the outset and wanting to keep an open mind, I do not follow a standardised list of questions. I ask for a job description and what a typical working day is like. Then we talk about whatever comes up.

In short, the self-descriptions in the interviews are unlikely to be representative of the world of finance. What does a professional such as Gautier make of them?

1. Rituals

Organisations are usually governed by two kinds of rule sets. One is formal and explicit, and conveyed in writing to newcomers by things such as rulebooks and legal contracts. The other is informal and implicit, and transmitted through unwritten “rituals” and subtle codes. Gautier explains: “When I teach a new class, my students don’t know whether to call me Chantal, Mrs, or Miss. Are they allowed to talk, ask questions? Students have to find out by themselves, for instance by listening to how others address me, and how I react to that. We call such information gathering ‘socialisation’ – the ways people make sense of their new working environment.”

Compare this to intern #1 at an investment bank:

“As an intern, it’s really important to be seen as willing to get tea, but not to actually be seen getting tea. You see the difference? If you are seen getting tea for people, they are not going to take you seriously. But if you are seen as not willing to get tea, they are going to think you’re arrogant.”

That intern must have witnessed how someone else in his department got tea, says Gautier, and ended up being seen as a lackey. Intern #2 was also busy finding her way:

“From vice presidents up, they don’t even introduce themselves to us. Essentially, the lower somebody is on the ladder, the easier it is to establish rapport, to bond over a joke.”

Quite a few interviewees talk about jokes and office banter, which appears as something of a sector ritual. The head of marketing:

“You just know when it’s your day to get the piss taken out of you. If they don’t like your shirt, you’re going to hear about it. There is a certain license to make fun of each other.”

Like most other interviewees, the head of marketing is well beyond the internship phase. She talks about a divide between what social scientists sometimes call the “in-group” and the “out-group”, with people going to great lengths to remain in the former:

“What can make this job really hard on you is all the social events. Going out with your team, division, company, and with clients. With clients, I can turn down most of the drinks by pretending I’m on a diet. With colleagues that doesn’t fly. You are out partying till late at night; a few hours later you’re back in the office. Three nights in a row. I have colleagues who died in their 40s, they would always be out with clients.”

The investment management adviser talks about what peer pressure and the need to conform does to her male colleagues:

“I know that when I walk past the desks at some divisions in an investment bank, the guys are instant-messaging each other with score cards. It’s a group mentality thing. I know guys who are totally lovely on their own, but at work they are, excuse my French, complete pricks.”

2. Sexism

For this insurance broker, maintaining membership of the in-group involved a very real sacrifice:

“I have been in several incidents of physical and verbal harassment. The thing is, you can’t go public with it because people talk. They’ll say, ‘She’s the girl who sued so-and-so’ and it will affect your career. This is a male-dominated industry, and people will be wary of you if you rock the boat. There will be certain things you are no longer asked to do, you get shut out of the circle. So women tend to brush it off, move on.”

Sexism is a recurrent topic in the interviews. For a number of female interviewees, sexism was clearly prevalent. Here are three quotes that struck Gautier:

“Insurance is very much an old boys’ network, particularly so on the broking side, and women are not well-treated. I have become quite thick-skinned, but still I find the industry shocking at times.” (Insurance broker)

“There’s much secrecy about pay. Everything gets negotiated individually and my sense is that in such situations women are at a disadvantage. There I am, sitting down with my boss. A typical guy is not uncomfortable asking for a £20k rise and getting £5k. Women are more likely to just take what they are offered, and obviously that’s going to be less. You don’t ask, you don’t get.” (Investment management adviser)

“You have to have a thick skin, and be able to give some witty comment back. I agree that male chauvinism, while quite rare, is tolerated.” (Industry journalist, bond market)

Others believed that sexism was not of great concern and did not stand in their way. Many continued to describe how the industry in fact was heavily based on performance. An interesting paradox, Gautier says: meritocracy on the one hand, versus glass ceiling on the other. The study findings remain inconclusive on this point, she adds.

“I have never encountered sexism. It’s a really meritocratic place, finance, one of the cool things about working here … They are fully aware of the laws on sexism and discrimination. In my mind, they are really trying too hard.” (IT business analyst, female)

“These days, we may be going over to the other side of the spectrum. Political correctness can get pretty ridiculous. When I came into the office with a new haircut, my female colleague said, ‘Wow, you look great.’ Turning to my boss, who is a man, she said, ‘Doesn’t she look great?’ My boss goes, ‘Well, I really can’t say.’ My colleagues say, ‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ And my boss says, ‘Look, I really can’t say … er, but yes, she does.’ My male colleagues know that I can sue them.” (Institutional stockbroker)

3. Exchanges

Many interviewees characterise their work as “relationship-based”. Often jobs in finance seem to involve a daily “puzzle” that you complete by getting information from others. Here’s the managing director of corporate finance:

“People skills are essential; you must be able to make people feel comfortable enough to share information.”

Interviewees seem to spend a considerable part of their day offering, sharing, trading and bartering facts and interpretations of facts. Often exchanges seem to be based on fostering trust, not legal obligations, and they rarely involve explicit bargaining.

There can also be very real trade-offs, where people will go as far as to take the blame just to keep a relationship functioning. The salesperson for a brokerage firm calls up investors and tries to get them to make a trade on the financial markets through his firm:

“Mistakes are also made when an order is not executed properly. Sometimes I take responsibility when it wasn’t my fault – protecting my relation with the client is more important. It’s to save their face, at considerable personal expense … Which hits can you take before going down yourself?”

The above in particular caught Gautier’s eye, she says. “Rewards and costs are important concepts that form the basis of social exchange theory, which suggests that people will continue to strengthen relationships with someone on the perceived possible outcomes.”

“In the City, there is a definite culture of paying your dues before you are able to really, really benefit – that can take time.” (Salesman for a brokerage firm)

A similar trade-off seemed at work when this financial recruiter tries to create chemistry between a candidate for a position and his prospective future boss:

“I am like a dating agency, and I will take a lot of flack to make it happen between the two. Say the candidate got a date wrong and didn’t show up at a meeting. I will take the blame, to make sure the candidate looks good to the hiring manager. The hiring manager does not have to like me, but he has to like the candidate.”

4. Psychological coping mechanisms

It would look as if at least some female interviewees exercise what social psychological theory calls cognitive dissonance, says Gautier. This is when people hold two opposing ideas in their heads – somebody may think of him or herself as rational, yet continue to smoke. When confronted, he or she may try to “solve” the contradiction by invoking the proverbial grandfather who died a heavy smoker at 90. In the jargon, Gautier says: “People are driven to reduce dissonance by altering their existing cognitions or by adding new ones in order to help manage internal conflicts.” She says it is interesting “how the women in this study, while well conscious of their male-dominated environment and aware of some of the men’s poor behaviour, nevertheless choose to conform out of fear of being shut out. The question is, at what cost?”

Gautier says she was struck by how many interviewees used the expression “don’t rock the boat”. There looks to be an implicit understanding to uphold the status quo. In order to survive in finance, it seems you have to conform, even adjust or change personality, and accept to “turn a blind eye”, “brush it off” and “move on”.

“One way is to become one of the boys, put away any sensitivity, ignore the appalling language. You gotta ditch your girliness, basically become unshockable. Drink with the guys, even go to strip clubs together.” (Insurance broker, female)

“If you want to last in this industry, you need to behave like a man. There’s very little space to behave differently … You still have to conform to their norms.” (Institutional stockbroker, female)

Gautier observed that “even within the parameters, some found it difficult to maintain the ‘right balance’”. It’s like a juggling act. On the one hand, women have to preserve their standing and in doing so exercise resilience. On the other hand, they are hauled into the game play. However, unlike their male equivalents they have to act with caution in order not to overstep the boundaries. Or as the head of marketing says: “Try not to make men look too stupid.”

“It’s just hard to draw the line. You must not be seen to be a prude, yet by becoming too involved with the drinking and socialising the signal you send is that you’re available. Which you must take very great care not to be. If one of the lads sleeps with a girl in the market, his reputation actually improves. Hers is destroyed – such a thing will just whizz through the firm. Everybody in the office will laugh about it. It’s just like school really.” (Insurance broker)

Initiation, socialisation, cognitive dissonance and theories about social exchange are all very basic concepts to social science and organisational psychology. Did Gautier herself pick up anything new? She laughs: “When I read what it was these bankers are doing all day, what their job actually entails, and then what they were getting paid, I caught myself thinking: Wait, I can do this!”

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