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Email, your bank's culture, and who fits

How and why do people mesh—or not—in your organization?

“There’s really not much that indicates we’ve learned anything new over the last several cycles,” says veteran lender and CEO Ed O’Leary. He aims to fix that. “There’s really not much that indicates we’ve learned anything new over the last several cycles,” says veteran lender and CEO Ed O’Leary. He aims to fix that.

What does the email you send say, and say about you? And what does it say in terms of the likelihood you’ll stay in the bank?

There’s a lending application to these questions, spurred by an interesting news article in The Wall Street Journal this week about a study regarding how to tell whether a new hire is fitting into the workplace culture, and how likely the person will remain for a long period of time.

This is a matter of concern, as it deals with employee turnover and in banks, employee turnover, with its training component, is often a very expensive proposition.

But the turnover metric is also one of the traditional measures of the “health” of the culture in a specific work environment. Bank CEOs frequently cite low turnover rates as an indicator of staff experience levels, expertise, and satisfaction, for example.

Culture and your emails

Culture is a big subject. Consensus on what it is, how it’s measured, and what constitutes a “good” culture are not subjects around which individuals quickly agree.

The authors of the study that was the subject of the article are two academics who were analyzing internal communications for possible predictive factors for whether new hires would likely remain for an extended time. The client company was a technology firm that actively seeks ways of determining the “cultural fit” of newly hired staffers. 

What stood out about the study, as reported in the Journal, is a correlation of a “language” factor and length of tenure. Employees that quickly assimilated and then imitated the language of their co-workers tended to remain at the company for longer terms. In addition, these employees had much lower probabilities of being involuntarily terminated. And they showed a statistically significant likelihood of advancing into managerial positions.

These conclusions were drawn from a review of 10.2 million internal email messages within the firm over a multi-year timeframe.

Email comes up frequently in my expert witness work and in my regular reading of business news. Clearly, the role of emails in situations involving litigation or in collecting evidence involved in prosecutions of alleged wrongdoing has grown quite prominent.

Emails, as I’ve often observed, are often the equivalent of “digital grunts,” wherein individuals communicate both excessively and obsessively. There is very little application of the test of “value added.”

As a result, un-nuanced emails become a trail of frequently embarrassing information—or worse.

How many lenders, when confronted with litigation involving a borrower have seen the bank counsel’s grimace, and heard, “I wish you hadn’t said that.”  

Emails are subject to discovery and production for the opposing side.

Those that are of particular interest usually mean trouble for one side or the other.

Email and “fit”

Yet this research I’ve spoken of represents a positive example of the use of emails beyond their utility in furthering inter-office communication. The results are, in a way, common sense.

If an employee enjoys his work and relates well with his fellow employees, then this manifests itself in a long and repetitive style of communication, where the choice of language and phrasing reflects on the employee’s desire to fit in and be accommodating.

It’s probably not the sort of thing that one would even notice in a fast-paced workplace. But thanks to the ability to accumulate and analyze large databases, interesting and useful information is yielded up.

We often tend to think of culture as a common understanding and perception of values that animate our workplaces. There are many traditional metrics of a healthy culture where we are analyzing the results of behaviors.

In the case of those behaviors’ predictive value, we may have discovered, in email, a tool that can be applied in a useful and productive way to enhance the overall impact of behaviors collectively on what we commonly call culture.

Why this is important to the credit tribe

Lenders with several years experience can often recognize in a colleagues’ behaviors factors that can be problematic to the long-term quality of their bank’s loan portfolio.

Among these:

• Carelessness

• Intolerance toward rules or internal controls.

• An overly optimistic outlook on business conditions.

• An unwillingness to confront difficult situations.

These factors, and more, can all undermine credit quality over a protracted time period.

Culture measured in bytes

Yet how often do we recognize the ability of our office’s culture to weed out or eliminate those who simply don’t belong?

Perhaps the analysis of an individual’s language and choice of phraseology in internal communications can be harnessed into a positive instrument to enhance workplace culture. It will be interesting to see where the article’s authors take their research, in looking further into this relationship.

Culture is an important topic—not always well understood nor consistently measured—and it’s certainly at the core of the causes of reputation risk that have impacted our industry so savagely in recent years.

Ed O’Leary

Banking Exchange Contributing Editor Ed O'Leary, a veteran lender and workout expert, spent nearly 50 years in bank commercial credit and related functions, working with both major banks as well as community banking institutions. His last job before retiring was as the CEO of a regional bank headquartered in Alburquerque, N.M. 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 [email protected]. O'Leary's website can be found at

In mid-2016 O'Leary's "Talking Credit" blog received a bronze excellence award for the Northeastern Region from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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