(Bloomberg) -- The uncomfortable conversations began the moment the 48-page report landed in senior managers’ inboxes at HSBC Holdings Plc last month. Soon, attention turned to the unlikely author who was emailing it.
A junior manager had invited more than 100 colleagues to talk with him about diversity and racism at the firm and then distilled their responses into a Wall Street-style presentation. It opens with a poem he wrote about hoping for change, before laying out his scathing conclusion: The bank is unlikely to meet its diversity goals because of discrimination and racism in the workplace, which is prompting recruits to leave.
One page ticks off a list of comments employees have endured.
“I just don’t like you. I’m not allowed to tell you why.”
“You’ve got all the right qualifications and you’ve done a great job, you’re just not the right fit for the team -- it’s just a vibe.”
“It’s never been harder than right now, being a White man in banking.”
In past decades, under Wall Street’s longstanding coda valuing discretion above all else, the junior manager might have been as good as terminated for rebroadcasting such ugly accounts. But after a year of widespread protests over racial inequality and corporate pledges to do better, and in the month that Juneteenth became a U.S. federal holiday, a different reckoning has been unfolding inside HSBC.
The author, Ian Clarke, is still at the bank where he’s spent 15 years, working in New York as a vice president in a unit that helps companies hold and move their money, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Officials at the firm have opened an internal review to take a deeper look into his findings and investigate the incidents he described.
“We are committed to improving diversity and inclusion at HSBC,” the bank said in a statement emailed by a spokesperson. “And whilst we are making progress, we know we have more work to do. When colleagues raise concerns we take them seriously and are looking into the issues raised.”
Many of the frustrations Clarke channeled from colleagues to HSBC’s leadership resonate industrywide. Big banks have long acknowledged the need to cultivate more diversity within their vast workforces and senior ranks, but have been slow to make progress. Accounts of slights and overt discrimination in the mostly White, mostly male world of finance continue to spill out.
As HSBC has ramped up efforts to improve, it’s vowed to at least double the number of Black staff in senior leadership roles by 2025 and committed to publishing data annually on ethnic representation and pay gaps in its workforce. Among other measures, its U.S. business is tying managers’ performance ratings to progress on diversity and inclusion.
Past efforts fell short, HSBC Chief Executive Officer Noel Quinn said in May at a diversity event organized by the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.
“I’m going to open up to the fact that we haven’t done well enough on that, and the events of a year ago with George Floyd, were a wakeup call I think for us all,” Quinn said. “It was a wakeup call for me because I sat down with our Black colleagues after that, and a number of us did as leaders, and said ‘OK, we’ve got to do something differently.’”
‘Rather Just Leave’
In his report, Clarke identifies himself as half Black, half White and LGBTQ. In a biography for an industry publication last year, he noted his dad is Jamaican but that he was raised by his English mother in a London housing project. In high school, Clarke said he got bullied for being “too Black, too White, too posh (the accent) and probably gay.” After college, he recalled, “the accounting firms wouldn’t even interview me, but HSBC recognized the value my uniqueness could bring and helped me flourish.”
Yet the series of talks with colleagues shifted his perspective, according to the report. “My findings troubled me greatly, and changed the way I viewed myself and my employer,” he wrote.
Clarke largely focused on colleagues who are BIPOC -- Black, indigenous and other people of color -- an acronym that’s gained popularity during the past year’s debate over racial injustice.
Two BIPOC women Clarke interviewed lauded HSBC’s culture as inclusive but described feeling undervalued once the pandemic struck last year. One with severe asthma said her manager rejected her request to work remotely, leaving her “hurt and confused” because it seemed the boss would “rather I catch the virus and died.”
In another passage, Clarke said he and others witnessed senior White colleagues at a Christmas party “committing physical and verbal sexual assaults” on younger women. The firm encourages staff to report such incidents.
“I would rather just leave and go to another bank who would support my aspirations,” Clarke quoted one employee as saying. “Many other people feel this way.”
Overall, the report makes the case that HSBC has “abnormal levels of systemic discrimination” and that BIPOC departures are now so frequent that it threatens to doom the bank’s efforts to diversify with recruitment.
To make his point, he tracked down five BIPOC employees who left one department and discovered they all landed higher positions at rivals including JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley.
“Yet nobody is saying anything or has done anything to demonstrate to those of us left that their concerns were noted and will be addressed,” he wrote in the report.
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