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Don’t forget when to shut up

Face-to-face or on Facebook, behave as a banker ought

Don’t forget when to shut up

Credit people deal with confidential information all the time. It’s part of our job descriptions.

How well do we observe the basic tenets of business confidentiality? In a long career, I’ve seen people get it right. But I’ve also observed that some people treat secrets and highly confidential information as either “too good to keep or not worth keeping.”

SVP in charge of blabbing

I am reminded of a very senior officer of one of my banks, years back. He had an engaging sense of humor. He enjoyed a rep as a story teller, a raconteur.

Unfortunately, his humor often came at the expense of his subject. And his sense of privacy was questionable. He shared things in meetings of the bank’s senior officers that would have been very embarrassing if attributed back to anyone at the bank.

Because of his position and stature, what this man said about customers, directors, community leaders, and large stockholders was almost guaranteed to be of interest beyond any small group of bankers.

He didn’t know when to shut up.

I just didn’t like the way others were often the butt of insensitive humor and that their business and confidences were often displayed and shared in disrespectful ways.

I never heard that any of these anecdotes came back to the bank in embarrassing ways. But I can’t believe that they didn’t do harm in some way or other.

If nothing else, they set a bad example. But today, such poor judgment can be amplified on a computer keyboard.

When in doubt, shut up and shut off

Earlier this week, Valerie Jarrett, advisor to President Obama, commented in her commencement address to the graduating class at Pomona College that before hiring anyone, she finds out what they have been doing online.

While Ms. Jarrett was making a humorous reference to the current controversy over information gathered and stored by the NSA, it raises in my mind fundamental questions about the extent to which bankers are good stewards of confidential information on customers and prospects.

Bankers tend to be cautious individuals. We take risks with other people’s money and in the process of intermediating between savers and users, we collect information that more often than not has elements of a proprietary nature to it.

There’s a reason for this, a business reason. Borrowers share this information with us because we need the data as part of our due diligence process—and largely because they trust us with their “secrets.” They get that and while they may be very protective of their information, they also believe that we are reliable and careful people.

When we bankers enter the world of social media as individuals, what message does it send about our attitudes about privacy and propriety?

You may wonder, what do our habits of sharing our own personal information have to do with our ability and willingness to keep our own counsel with our customers’ private information?

It becomes an issue with me in the sense of how indiscriminate people can be today in sharing information and activities of their private lives. How many Facebook postings have I seen of such things as a picture of two beers on a counter with a caption “Customer departure lounge at O’Hare. The vacation has begun.” 

Perhaps this is simply a way of sharing information that might deemed to be of interest to one’s friends.

But what other information is conveyed? 

Two beers means that either you’re a two-fisted drinker or more likely are traveling with a companion. Perhaps the time that the picture was posted suggests that you slid out of work early, and that that particular day was not really a vacation day.

Is all of this necessary? And is it intentional that you directly or indirectly convey this much information?

I’m not saying that posting such things as our age, family doings, travel plans, or social lives are a matter of grave personal consequence. But we must take care about what we say says about us. We can say a great deal without realizing what we are conveying. With the explosive growth of social media, I think we’re sharing too much information about ourselves and in the process diminishing our own personas with each other by our propensity and almost compulsion to “tell all.” 

How many of us are sharing so much personal information that we are depreciating the sense of what is truly personal or private? 

Do our customers notice?  Do they care? 

“Perhaps they don’t,” you say.

But what if they do?

And what if that begins to color their judgments and personal assessments of us as their confidants and advisors, as we frequently are?

Test your off-line self

There have been several high-profile lawsuits of the violation of “insider information” in recent months and one recent conviction of a high-profile private equity money manager.

Not too many of us as community bankers have information that’s truly of an insider nature as that term is used in securities law.

But we do run a risk when we get blabby. I’m concerned about how we may as bankers blur the line between what we can freely share and what should be considered privileged and treated with much greater care.

Examine you own actions and words: Have you ever been thoughtless and in the process, indiscrete?

One of the first things we should consider is how much information we share about our customers and prospects with our spouses.

With the birth of the first of our children, my wife has not worked outside the home. She’s not trained in banking or finance and has no particular interest in such areas.

But she is very interested in people. Over my many years in banking she has met many of my customers and coworkers. Fortunately, I could usually talk about them and the non-financial aspects of their dealings without fear of compromising sensitive information about them or the bank.

In business, one of the key ingredients, if not the key ingredient, in successfully negotiating human interrelationships is trust. If trust doesn’t exist, business slows down—due diligence assumes a much greater urgency, collateral becomes paramount over character, and we become suspicious of the motives and actions of others.

That’s no way to do one’s business, especially the business of lending where candor and truthfulness trump almost everything else.

Banker, know thyself

I think that’s where we bankers need to be brought up short on occasion—self-examine, and don’t be easy on yourself.

We are professional people and we are entrusted with the reputations of others as well as put our own professional reputations on the line most every day.

It’s no disgrace to make a mistake in underwriting credit. What lender hasn’t had a loss or two along the way? 

But there is disgrace in letting ourselves and others down by our insensitivity to fundamental principles of human behavior such as respect and trustworthiness. Can we with a completely straight face deny that we talk too much, including our participation in the various venues of social media?

Today, our industry is under assault by critics among many of our public constituencies but particularly the politicians and some of our customers who have found dealing with us to be very difficult the last few years.

Community banking, especially among small- to medium-sized business lending, is one of the last outposts of professionally driven, intensely personal human relationships.

I hope none of us compromise the trust that still largely exists between us and our borrowers. We should treat such relationships as a matter of personal honor and value them above all business metrics. It’s all we really have in the first place.

Ed O’Leary

Banking Exchange Contributing Editor Ed O'Leary, a veteran lender and workout expert, spent more than 40 years in bank commercial credit and related functions, working with both major banks as well as community banking institutions. He earned his workout spurs in the dark days of the 1980s and early 1990s in both oil patch and commercial real estate lending. O'Leary began his banking career at The Bank of New York in 1964, and worked at banks in Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. He served as a faculty member and thesis advisor at ABA's Stonier Graduate School of Banking for more than two decades, and served as long as a faculty member for ABA's undergraduate and graduate commercial lending schools. Today he works as a consultant and expert witness, and serves as instructor for ABA e-learning courses. You can e-mail him at etoleary@att.net. O'Leary's website can be found at www.etoleary.com.

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