Saturday, July 21, 2018

HSBC: it might have had its roots in British colonialism, but these days it is a company that celebrates diversity. 

Just look at the ads. We’ve had the “World’s Local Bank”, the girl with the lemonade stand selling her cute product in a multiplicity of currencies, a lighthearted piece documenting cultural quirks. 

The bank’s YouTube channel reinforces the message. A video features an African American employee in the US talking about the African Heritage Employee Resource Group. 

Another features the Barmby Moor Pink Ladies cycling group that one of its managers helped to set up (the bank partners with British Cycling). 

Even disability gets a nod (something many companies that like to talk about diversity forget) with a feature on an employee with Parkinson’s Disease who runs.

And yet, when it comes to the bank’s leadership it all falls flat. HSBC has just announced that its next CEO will be John Flint, currently its head of retail banking and wealth management. And of course he is a middle-aged white bloke. So is the chairman. So is the finance director. So is the man Mr Flint will replace, Stuart Gulliver. So was his predecessor Michael Geoghegan. So was his predecessor. And so on back down the line. 

The bank’s board? It’s better than some. There are five women among the 18 (count ’em) directors, although that falls to two among the 14 people listed under the heading “senior management”.

There are also more non-white directors than you tend to find on the typical board of your typical global bank, and the same goes for the senior management. 

But the majority still look like Mr Flint. 

When you visit HSBC it tries very hard to give you the impression that it really believes in its diversity message. It confronts you as soon as you enter the building. Results presentations feature its multinational marketing, while reporters await the appearance of the bank’s leadership. Executives switch between London and Hong Kong to deliver the numbers.

In a world in which a destructive nationalism is rising, the message HSBC pumps out, even if it is motivated by self interest, is one that could do with being heard more often. 

It is just a pity that the bank isn’t living up to it when it comes to its upper echelons. 

That’s not to say I don’t fully understand the importance of hiring “the best person for the job”. I do, and if that is John Flint then so be it. His ethnicity, and gender, shouldn’t matter. 

But they do seem to matter, because if it’s just about talent why is it that this one particular ethnicity and gender always wins out? By the way, I’m also a middle-aged white bloke before people start bleating about anti-white racism on my part. 

I’ve no doubt that HSBC hires from a diverse pool of candidates when it comes to the bank’s much-vaunted management training programme through which Mr Flint, an HSBC lifer, got his start. Perhaps change is coming and we’re simply not seeing it because it’s taking place at lower levels. 

Perhaps, when HSBC hands the reins over to the millennials, I’ll get an email from some PR person saying, “see, we told you we lived this stuff, look at our board and management committees now” while I’m scouting retirement homes. 

But perhaps to make that happen, to ensure what looks a bit like the last vestiges of colonialism at the bank are blown away, HSBC’s bosses need to ask themselves some searching questions.