Forget brown shoes - investment banks are fiercely meritocratic

EDITOR'S BLOG: The likes of Goldman Sachs have little time for petty snobbery.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 02 Sep 2016

I have a terrible confession to make. The suit I am wearing today is accompanied by a pair of brown shoes. There - I’ve said it. Feel my shame. They are very high quality, bench-made, Northamptonshire, suede ankle boots but brown nevertheless. Bang goes my chances of ever getting a job at Goldmans or JP Morgan. (You’d be the least surprised to hear my hopes for employment at either institution died long ago.) My plea for clemency would include an invite for you to come round and see some of the appalling clobber my colleagues have rocked up in today. Shorts?

The unacceptability of wearing brown shoes in The City - ‘a gentleman never wears brown in town’ - apparently dates back to that arch-snob Lord Curzon, Viceroy of India under Queen Victoria and Edward VII. But despite the custom baffling many supremely well-dressed French and Italians in the world of finance it hasn’t gone away in the UK.

This is the country’s latest social exclusion story and was prompted by yesterday’s Social Mobility Commission report which declaimed that graduates with Firsts from elite universities are being 'locked out' from jobs in investment banks if they commit the faux pas of wearing brown shoes, look uncomfortable in a suit, or lack the required 'polish' or 'aura.'

This shoe-based winnowing process is even more brutal for non-privileged candidates from non-elite universities and schools. Here one disappointed interviewee noted: ‘There are some areas in the bank … where the concept of diversity is about taking a different year group from Eton or from Harrow; if some of the departments are really ambitious they might include St Paul’s and Westminster school.’

The commission, chaired by former Labour minister and Blairite Alan Milburn, reveals that the mainstream recruitment and selection processes of investment banks has 'set up barriers for individuals from non-privileged backgrounds'. It goes far further than footwear. Privileged kids are set on the path of internships very early, which gets them spotted and able to make networks even from pre-university years. (Here is a free plug by the way for Creative Access, an excellent scheme to get minorities into our industry, the media, via internships)

‘It is important to note again that these processes are becoming more pronounced within the sector,’ noted the report. ‘Banks acting alone may be reluctant to reverse this trend for fear of their competitors capturing all the ‘best’ candidates at an early stage.’

My first reaction to this report was a small, inward groan. It’s not often one leaps to Goldman’s defence but anyone who has seen a group of young Goldmans people recently would note that working out which British social class they come from is far from easy. What is noteworthy is their extremely cosmopolitan nature - they are from India, China, South America. All over. Goldmans would also probably point out, in its defence, that its boss Lloyd Blankfein was born in the Bronx, brought up in social housing and that his father was a clerk with the US postal service and his mother a receptionist.

The BBC noted critically that ‘The report's authors found that managers placed as much importance on a person's speech, accent, dress and behaviour as their skills and qualifications.’ Well , yes. But don’t all employers do this? If you are hiring at McDonalds, Greggs or to work on the counter at Santander in Margate how individuals deport themselves if they are going to be placed in customer-facing roles is pretty important. You may be a super whizz geek with an IQ up into the stratosphere but can you look people in the eye and smile? Even investment bankers have to smile. Occasionally.

It’s interesting that even under The Guardian’s treatment of this story I found the following comment - ‘Turning up in a suit wearing brown shoes is just symptomatic of having done no research about the company and its culture prior to interviewing. The very fact that you got an interview means you weren't discriminated against based on your background, but to walk into the room unprepared immediately marks you down as not good enough for this kind of job. There is no excuse - you can find everything you need to know on the Web. You're not a victim; you’re just not trying hard enough.’

The continuing issue of class and social mobility in the UK is a festering sore that just will not heal. Maddeningly, it’s very particular to us. (Just look at the amount of attention the visit to see Putin by those teenaged Etonians has attracted this week.) It starts with our attitudes towards school and the fact that so many people try - despite the fact that it bankrupts them - to buy advantage by sending their kids into private education. It might be worth considering why they do this. Very few of them are class warriors keen to keep the lower orders below stairs.

Theresa May has made a rare interesting noise during her first 90 days - social mobility is something about which she seems to feel very strongly. In the meantime that bastion of bourgeois privilege Oxford University has announced today that the proportion of young people it admits from state schools has climbed to the highest level in forty years. The university has offered 59.2% of places to pupils from state schools, up from 55.6% of places taken last year.

Incidentally, the report noted that in the UK, 7% of children attend fee-paying schools, yet the Sutton Trust found in 2014 that 34% of new investment bankers had attended a fee-paying school. I’m surprised the percentage is that low. Nevertheless, investment banks, in my experience, have little time for petty snobbery. They are aggressive, fiercely meritocratic, opportunistic places, home to those after the fastest buck and bonus they can get. Posh kids get chucked out fast if they don’t make the grade. And this is precisely why many more normal, balanced, less money-focussed Millennials from Notting Hill or Middlesborough probably wouldn’t want to work at one in the first place.

Finally, it was interesting that the report made reference to inappropriately loud or incorrectly fastened ties and brown shoes but not to issues surrounding how female bank applicants might dress. What would be thought non-u attire or footwear when it came to young women in The City? Stilettos, Uggs, flats? Potential female recruits are in the unusual, but even more perilous, position of having more choice outside the dark suit, white shirt and black brogues uniform of the early-stage Master of the Universe. Would a wearer of a Little Brown Dress - by Chanel, M&S or Primark - get shown the door?


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