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When is discrimination not discrimination?

Is matching salespeople to clients by gender and ethnicity discrimination? We think not.

Bank of America (B of A) stands accused of racial discrimination in the US for this and other misdemeanours. According to Reuters, the bank’s being sued by numerous unspecified plaintiffs for steering its African-American bankers and brokers towards African-American clients on the grounds that clients are more comfortable dealing with sales professionals of their own race.

It strikes us that this isn’t such a crime, and if it is, it’s one that’s committed by similarly nefarious banks this side of the Atlantic.

“Banks clearly look for people who can empathise with clients,” says Shaun Springer, chief executive of search firm Napier Scott. “Salespeople are employed because of their cultural understanding of the client base – and that generally derives from cultural similarities.”

“There’s definitely a feeling that it’s good to match salespeople to clients of the same cultural background,” confirms another derivatives-focused headhunter.

So where did B of A go wrong? The main issue appears to have been that the African-American clients assigned to the African-American bankers and brokers were less wealthy than their white counterparts. Were their accounts more lucrative, we have the distinct suspicion that this case wouldn’t have been brought…

Comments (16)

  1. Your argument was sound until the last bit about accounts being more lucrative et al.. There is a case for both views, why did you need to suggest that the issue was about money – now that’s racism/discrimination on the basis of ethnicity
    tut tut… the struggle continues…

  2. completely agree….people buy people!

  3. All will be resolved when compensation is paid!

  4. Again, is this not another example of the line between common sense and discrimination being exploited for personal gain? Surely if you analyse anything in sufficient detail it will be possible to identify discrimination? To what extent are individuals allowed to exercise common sense without the fear of being accused of a discriminatory thought process?

  5. who ever wrote this article is a jack ass what do you mean if the account was more lucrative?

    You must be very daft

  6. It is racial discrimination according to the law. No question. Ignoring the colour of the person and the “cultural” argument, there is a potential minefield in the City with investment banks requiring a German (not the legal, “German speaker”) to deal with Germans, or a Russian to work in Moscow (not “Russian speaker”).

    Whilst many firms in London (particularly public sector – bless them!), try to employ staff on the basis of the ethnic make up of the communities they exist in, Financial Services employ front office staff on the premise of the clients they work for.

    In reality, a German speaking Brazilian (and for some reason, there are a few!) or a Polish speaking Brit, will rarely be considered to cover those markets.

    Discrimination, yes – good business, certainly! The law and profit make uneasy bed fellows!

  7. Under the UK’s discrimination laws, a policy of matching employees to the customer base of their ethnic group is unlawful – despite the fact that it’s frequently suggested that this is a move that can promote diversity in the interest of the business.

    What makes it illegal? It’s a decision regarding the appointment of someone to a role that’s taking into consideration their race or nationality – you’re potentially discriminating against someone if you give them an inferior role and you’re discriminating against someone else if you give them a superior role. It’s direct discrimination on the basis of their race and nationality and that cannot be justified.


    Jane Mann, Fox Williams Reply
  8. It is so obvious to see that the people who believe that this incident is not discrimination are white males/individuals that think we live in a perfect world where discrimination doesn’t occur.

    I think Jonathan, HR & Recruitment above makes a valid point about aligning sales people with clients of their mother tongue. This makes sense in Europe, but in this case why would Black Americans have a different “mother tongue” from their white peers. They all speak “American English”.

    Finally, if the accounts assigned to the plaintiffs were smaller and less lucrative, why did their “white managers” not think to give them a few large accounts to ensure that the plaintiffs had a chance of getting the same overall compensation as everybody else in the department? Isn’t that common sense and equitable?!

  9. This world is just full of this politically correct rubbish!! I think people have tried to fix the problem of discrimination and racism but now the pendulum has swung way too much in the other direction.

    Times have changed, there are people of all races in IB and in Business. Creating an organisation that only accepts applications from ethnic minorities is just as racist as setting up an organisation that recruits solely white, english males.

  10. I’m quite curious to know what % of BoA’s professionals are African-American…anyone?

  11. There is enough discrimination as it is; there is no need to reinforce racial lines. It becomes a case of discrimination when there is inequality in size of accounts because what matters in this field is the bottom line: $ So here, it’s total discrimation. If the pay exceeded those of white account managers, my money is on the fact that white males would scream reverse discrimination!

  12. The size of the account itself does not matter as much as how much you grow it. It is what (i.e. how much) you make of the account which matters more than which account you are “given”. I could be “given” a big account and if i bust it then have i done a good job as compared to someone else who was “given” a smaller account and grew it?

    That said matching African AMERICANS with African AMERICANS and not Caucasian AMERICANS seems ridiculous. I agree with Jeremy and Jonathan – they are all AMERICANS afterall. If your client is giving business to someone on the grounds of racial similarity then you can sue your client as well!

  13. Blacks have been known for their stylish qualities since the abolition of slavery. they are the most efficient workers ever. that was why Pepsi Cola started from nowhere with these smart black guys, and became the srongest competitor to Coca Cola. If you want your company to grow, please recruit the blacks, and pay them well. Try it.

  14. In my opinion, (barring extreme cases) *any* kind of selection based on ethnicity,gender,age,sexuality, etc. promotes segregation and is, as such, ultimately detrimental to the progress of societies such as ours.

  15. In my opinion, BoA is right. Let these happy slappy lawyers and politically correct duffers get a life. BoA is in the business of making profit, and must be at full freedom to deploy is assets towards that aim. The more the better off course without breaking the laws.

    Those who have never ran a company always claim to know how best to deploy its most valuable assets (people). Therefore BoA should carry on the good work of deploying its assets as best it can.

    Those who beleive they can do better should look at supplying their services to BoA with the distinct aim of improving profit margins. Any other thing in my view will be a happy slappy, we are in this together nonesense, which I strongly oppose.

  16. I am of french origin and I have been working in sales for few years and I got assigned clients from all over the world until now, the company has decided that is going to be more profitable if I get only french clients (all the sales people are having the same treatment) my income is going to be significantlly lower beause of this (we dont sell much in France) I feel that this is discrimination but I dont have legal information. Anybody knows where I can get more info?

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