Banks adopt family-friendly approach

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This has not deterred some banks from trying to spruce up their family-friendly credentials. The latest to give its parental allure a dusting down is Citigroup. The London office of the US bank has launched workshops for parents designed to promote "school gate conversations" at work.

Does this suggest Citigroup's traders will be discussing the eradication of head lice when they should be debating the price of oil? Certainly not, said Paisley Arnold, a director in fixed-income sales and co-founder of the group: "We do not aim to detract from the working day. It's about providing a network to share information."

Citigroup's parents are invited to attend lunchtime classes covering the likes of first aid training, reading skills and sex education. The result is meant to be school gate conversation minus the small talk. Arnold said: "We are providing an efficient way to disseminate information. For most people, that is more important than the networking aspect."

Citigroup Parents is the bank's largest networking group in London with 600 members, of whom 40% are men. According to Arnold, other banks have been inspired to copy the programme.

Deutsche Bank has formed a parents' group. Goldman Sachs offers schemes including maternity buddies, who befriend women about to take maternity leave, though Annabel Smith, head of diversity, denies Citigroup was the inspiration.

A spokeswoman for Working Families, a campaigning group, said banks deserve full marks for trying: "The fact that they are doing anything at all is impressive. Banking is a difficult environment for people with children and we have been impressed by what has been introduced."

Last year, Citigroup won a Working Families award for innovation in work-life balance policies and a vice-president in the finance department of JP Morgan was shortlisted for the Working Families annual award for the most family-friendly boss.

This year, however, banks' names are notably absent from the Working Families' shortlist. The awards are instead set to go to the likes of East Kent Hospitals NHS Trust and Brent Council.

The spokeswoman said NHS trusts feature on the shortlist because they have little option but to help staff juggle family commitments: "NHS trusts find it hard to recruit and retain people: they can't pay high wages; they have to do their best to be flexible."

Investment banks are less financially constrained. The spokeswoman added: "They find it very easy to recruit staff but have trouble retaining them."

Banks rarely talk about their retention problems. But these were given an airing two weeks ago at a conference at the London Business School. Shiva Dustdar, a credit officer in the risk management division of the European Investment Bank, described how when she was pregnant she gave up a job in fixed-income origination at JP Morgan and moved to Fitch, the ratings agency: "I was travelling too much to have a family. I wanted to reduce the travel and the stress. Moving enabled me to balance my life in a way that would have been impossible had I stayed in banking."

Other banking attendees confirmed the obvious: learning mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and meeting other parents in the lunch hour are little help for the challenges of raising a family while doing a highly pressured job in an investment bank.

Nell Cady-Kruse, a managing director and European head of credit risk management at Credit Suisse First Boston, said family-friendly policies make little difference. Instead, she said, bankers need to rethink their careers: "You can always race up the corporate ladder by working manic hours but I see my career as a little bit up, a little bit down."

Another attendee, who spent 20 years as an M&A banker at Merrill Lynch on Wall Street, said banks should come clean and admit there are some roles that are incompatible with normal family life. "If you work in M&A and a client wants you, you go to them. It doesn't matter if it's a Friday evening. I couldn't have done it if I had children; even a husband would have been out of the question."

Noreen Doyle, first vice-president for the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development and a former managing director at Bankers Trust, said: "Do you want the rewards and the hassle? It's a two-sided coin: there are financial and emotional rewards. There are also costs in terms of time."

Citigroup's school-gate conversations illustrate the dilemma: attendees might receive distilled information on childcare but they miss out on the real school gate. Their main regret is unlikely to be that they miss a chance to discuss bed-wetting with other parents but that they lose an opportunity to spend time with their children.

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