THE BLOG

Banking On Trust

Financial institutions can and should be a force for good. It's not enough for banks to only appear trustworthy or reliable. If major institutions want the hearts and minds of the public back, it's time for them to take broad, concrete steps to change the way they approach banking altogether.
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Let's be honest, most people don't trust banks any more, and that's a problem. Coming out of the 2008 crisis people were angry, and rightfully so. Too many bankers cared only about filling their own pockets, regardless of the consequences or the risks. As a result, Americans paid a very heavy toll. While we have mostly dug out from the economic fallout, those of us in the banking industry must not only continue to help repair the economic damage, but also our relationship with customers. In short, in 2008 we violated our customers' and our nation's trust, and now we must earn it back.

As noted by The New York Times, our country's largest banks have spent the last eight years trying to find creative ways of marketing themselves as "changed" in the wake of the economic crisis. But it's incredibly clear, especially in the wake of both the Republican and Democratic conventions, that these efforts haven't worked. From our highest-ranking politicians to bank customers themselves, the public opinion of banks is still firmly rooted in suspicion and mistrust.

Being a responsible financial institution is about more than appearing trustworthy; it's about genuinely earning the trust of customers by demonstrating your commitment to reliability and transparency for clients. If we're ever going to really address these issues, we cannot focus on our "image"; we must address the systemic issues that created this problem. It's time for the country's biggest banks to commit to policies that put their customers before their profits.

The first step in rehabilitating the banking industry should be the adoption of clear, customer-centric policies that emphasize the health of clients' finances over the bank's profits. While it's good to see the banks reinforcing the idea of banking that benefits communities, they should be embracing the industry's purpose: protecting assets and empowering people's lives.

For example, despite New York City's efforts to provide municipal identification cards to over 670,000 residents lacking other forms of ID, some of the biggest banks in the city -- and the country -- are still refusing to accept the cards as primary identification. The cards are approved for use as primary ID by the Federal Reserve, Treasury Department, and more, and are accepted at many smaller institutions, but the major banks still refuse them. Access to banking is a key building block for financial growth and well being, yet the biggest banks refuse to offer their services to communities who arguably need it most.

As an industry, it's time to recognize that regulation is not our enemy. With the extraordinary responsibility of handling our customers' money comes an obligation to adhere to regulations and policies designed to protect them. At Amalgamated Bank, we firmly believe responsible banks embrace and support measures that help defend the financial health of their customers. We are not perfect, we are realistic, and we are for-profit institutions. But that does not preclude us from acting as a force of good to help empower our customers. In our bank, we follow specific, guiding principles to help ensure our actions have positive, measurable impacts, and that our policies are consistently in the best interests of our customers.

Banks should also be demonstrating their commitment to improving their communities by helping their employees access new financial opportunities. For example, last year we hiked our minimum wage to $15, and recently JP Morgan Chase has subsequently announced it will hike its minimum wage to between $12 and $16.50 for different employees.

These wage increases are critically important; lost in the headlines about huge CEO salaries is the fact that on average , more than 30% of the 1.7 million people who work in retail banks make less than $15 per hour. This is a step in the right direction, but more banks need to commit to real changes that impact people's lives and livelihoods.

The only way to guarantee the financial industry will change, and promote customer trust above all else, is for our biggest banks to lead the charge. All of us in the banking industry should be telling our customers what we're doing with their money, and why. We should be promoting policies, both within the banking sphere and beyond, that ensure that we are acting in the best interesting of our clients and helping them reach their goals. Above all else, every bank should set out every day to earn and reinforce its customers' trust.

Financial institutions can and should be a force for good. It's not enough for banks to only appear trustworthy or reliable. If major institutions want the hearts and minds of the public back, it's time for them to take broad, concrete steps to change the way they approach banking altogether.