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RecensionsBook Reviews

From Tellers to Sellers: Changing Employment Relations in Banks edited by Marino Regini, Jim Kitay, and Martin Baethge, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1999, 342 pp., ISBN 0-262-18193-2.

  • Marek Korczynski

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  • Marek Korczynski
    Loughborough University, U.K.

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This book is part of the extensive MIT-initiated project examining the changing nature of employment relations in advanced economies in a range of industries. Its focus on banking is welcome in that this industry has tended to be relatively marginalized in the manufacturing-centred traditions of industrial relations scholarship. The book faithfully follows the MIT research agenda in examining the main factors pushing change within employment relations, and in outlining the main contours of these changes, specifically around work organization, skill formation, staffing arrangements, job security, compensation, industrial relations policies and enterprise governance. The bulk of the book is made up of national chapters on employment relations in banking in nine major economies. The countries featured are Australia, USA, New Zealand, UK, Italy, France, Spain, Holland, and Germany. Each of these country studies is written by a group of experts from the respective country. Each individual chapter comprises an overview of the main drivers of change —product market changes and deregulation, changing business strategies, and potentially revolutionary information technology developments—in that country’s banking industry as a whole, and a review of employment relations changes, usually based on case study data on four banks. Sandwiching these nine chapters are an introduction written by the editors and a conclusion penned by Marino Regini.

The country studies clearly bear out the observation in the introductory chapter that, “it is evident... that banks throughout the OECD are experiencing a profound transformation unleashed by deregulation, privatisation and technological change, that affects not only the way bank business is conducted but also traditional employment practices and systems of industrial relations” (p. 3). The data indicate that there have been substantial moves away from the traditional bureaucratic and often paternalistic system of employment relations that was found in many banks in many countries at the end of the 1970s. While change is evident, the nature of this change is less clear. Such is the variation in business strategies and employment relations patterns emerging in the movement away from the bureaucratic past that it is not possible to identify one dominant model of new employment relations.

Some broad emerging themes can be highlighted, however. One key change has been the widespread adoption of sales aims within banking jobs. As the title of the book neatly puts it, the old tellers are increasingly becoming the new sellers. Management is increasingly defining interactions between their staff and customers as “sales opportunities” and is reconfiguring employment relations accordingly. In bank after bank, in country after country, management has sought to introduce a “sales culture,” often identifying individual sales targets for staff, and sometimes making commission or bonus payments contingent on these targets being met. Another important common change for the front-line, customer-facing jobs, has been the increasing segmentation of work organization systems to mirror the business strategy of marketing to specific segments of the customer base. For the more numerous staff in jobs in the “mass customization” segment, this change appears to often involve a narrowing of task variation. While “a degree of deskilling has undoubtedly taken place in some banks in some positions, the situation in branches is nevertheless complex” (p. 14), not least because the new sales emphasis brings with it increasing areas of discretion and a new range of skills. More straightforward Taylorization of jobs has occurred in “back office” processing jobs which tend to be undertaken in large centralized units. A consequence of these changes in work organization is that the traditional, bureaucratically structured, career path within banks no longer holds.

These are some of the important common themes that emerge from the data presented. But, overall, the story is not one of commonality; rather it is one of variation, variation at all levels, within banks, within countries and between countries. The already mentioned segmentation of work organization systems to mirror market segments speaks to variation within individual banks. The chapter by Keltner and Finegold on the USA highlights well the variation within individual countries. Of their four case study banks, they characterize two as following a “low skill commodation strategy,” and two as following a strategy involving “adding value through human resource investment.” While these two levels of variation necessarily create a “messiness” in the data, the book also suggests important variation between countries. The well-established contrast between the employer dominated, weakly regulated USA system of industrial relations, and the German system of regulation through dialogue between social partners not surprisingly holds true also in the banking industry.

It is to the book’s credit that it does not shy away from the complexity and variations in the data on contemporary employment relations in the banking. The concluding sentence in the introductory chapter is unequivocal in its reasoned equivocation: “in the middle of such a fluid process [of change], the only generalization that seems valid is that the traditional world of banking is dead” (p. 29). This is a clear, well-written and well-organized book that brings a wealth of empirical data to bear on an important issue. It is a key sourcebook for those interested in employment relations within banks. There is a sense that its strength is also its weakness, however. Its strong empirical focus means that it tends to eschew theoretical engagement. Frustratingly, this is the case at both the level of theorization of macro social systems of production, and at the level of theorization of micro forms of service work organization. This is to be regretted because in both areas there is much that is of interest in current academic debates. The book is a seller of empirical material, but unfortunately is not a teller of what this empirical material means.