'Your business must be a reflection of society,' urges broker

How does one determine a lender’s ability to work with a diverse client base? According to Master Private Finance’s (MPF) sales and operations director, Aaron Noone, and national relationship director, Alison Houghton-Corfield, it comes down to an honest Q&A.

To the uninformed, casual observer, the part a broker plays when it comes to securing a loan for a borrower is easy: find the right lender for their client’s financial situation.

However, as any reputable intermediary will tell you, understanding a finance provider’s ability to work with a diverse client base is just as important as the money making its way across the table. So, what questions must be asked to help one reach that verdict?

“Tell me the make-up of your team,” Aaron stated. “What is your diversity & inclusion (D&I) policy?” A lack of awareness here, he explained, would be evident if it was challenging to produce an answer. After all, the recognition of a firm’s approach to D&I can only be genuine. “Authenticity is key and, for change to be real, we need to drop the virtue-washing.”

Virtue-washing is a term widely used to define the act of disproportionately magnifying virtuous behaviour and its social benefits, while using it as a ticket to behave in a less than socially beneficial manner elsewhere. An example of this would be a company publicly highlighting its number of female directors, all the while brushing under the carpet the fact they have a board lacking a single ethnic minority colleague.

“The industry flag bearers are wild about women,” Aaron remarked. “For far too long, women have been treated very badly in the industry and it has to stop, but there are other groups facing bullying, harassment, and discrimination, [too].”

This tends to come in the form of what is often dismissed as ‘banter,’ a word previously used to qualify a witty exchange, but now appears to be exploited to justify discriminatory, belittling behaviour. It also comes via unconscious bias and deeply held, erroneous stereotypes.

“I am mixed-race and my natural hair is extremely curly,” Alison said. “People always commented on my hair [and] would ask me why I didn’t wear it really short, as it looked smarter, or if I was using the right products for my hair type. It definitely had an effect on me, as I now often have it blow-dried straight.” 

The analogy of a snowball rolling down a hill, growing in stature and gathering momentum, is often used as a metaphor in such circumstances. Aaron pointed out that these small infractions, under the guise of ostensibly innocuous remarks, add up to something heavier and more dangerous over time.

“I had one particular colleague who used to ask me what was wrong with my hair,” Alison continued, “and asked what brokers said when I turned up with my hair looking like it did.

She always passed comment on how I dressed, too. Her remarks never came from a nice place, they were always tinged with malice and criticism. One day, I’d had enough and I retaliated. I told her I could dress how I liked and I would choose my style over hers every single time. I said I’d wear my hair however I wanted and that her advice wasn’t welcome. I stood looking at her, waiting for a response, but there wasn’t one. The comments ceased.”

Aaron recalled his own experiences of bullying in the past, something that came to a head when he disclosed a stress-related medical condition called cluster headache and wasn’t taken seriously by his superiors. “The reply? ‘I always thought you were a man’. I was made to feel like I was somehow not, and that being a woman or feminine is something to be ridiculed or seen as a sign of weakness." 

In order for brokers and lenders to be able to extend positive working relationships to clients who are women, LGBTQ+ and ethnic minorities, they first must take great strides at home, by creating a diverse and inclusive company culture — something Master Private Finance is at the forefront of.

“At MPF, we advertised, shook hands, and started employment within a two-week period, whereas many business owners have said, ‘I just cannot find the staff I need’,” Aaron divulged. “The feedback we’ve received tells us that our culture and approach to staff is inspiring and, even though they can work from home, they love being in the office with the team. How can I then justify working with a lender that sends sexist advertising campaigns or has such a glaringly obvious, non-inclusive culture behind their brand?” 

“Your business must be a reflection of society, your client base, and the country,” Aaron summarised. “If you’re not offering a diverse and inclusive workplace [and] employee structure, you are failing in your approach to D&I.” 

It surely goes without saying then, that if a business is offering it, and their team is open-minded and educated, the responses to their clients will invariably be more informed and inclusive. Put simply, input from a diverse collective helps broaden everyone’s knowledge and understanding of different cultures. Without this, Aaron asserted, a lender is not able to make a sound judgement — especially if there’s no one capable of enhancing their understanding or explaining in a nonbiased way what their client means. “A diverse office promotes positivity and increases productivity. Positivity is contagious. Negativity is a terminal plague.”

Indeed, MPF has refused to work with lenders that have negative cultures, and suspect other brokers will follow suit. While there is undoubtedly a direct link between problematic company values and the way customers are treated, Aaron was quick to point out that a poor business often means poor ownership; it isn’t always a reflection on the wider team.

Being diverse and inclusive doesn’t always come hand-in-hand, and this echoes the necessity for authenticity.

“The business is often a physical manifestation of the owner’s thought process and character,” Aaron expounded. “When bad behaviour is rife, that is a symptom of poor and ineffective leadership, rather than poor staff. The easy approach of a poorly run business is to blame the people when, in reality, it’s often the owner and leaders.” 

As the adage goes, one must get to the root of the problem. If a boss discovers that a member of staff is being made to feel uncomfortable, for whatever reason, the responsibility is theirs to put things right. If the workplace is allowed to descend into ‘hyper masculinity’, or falls foul of persistent ‘banter,’ that is when a bully emerges.

“Unless owners are brave enough to examine why they are not inclusive, why they allow bullying, or why they stoke the flames of discrimination, we will never have a message received,” Aaron added.

“Majority characteristics need to hear the stories of the minorities,” Alison urged, “only then can they truly understand.” Laudably, she hasn’t let the adversities defeat her, and the confidence she holds is evident of that. “The biases I have faced throughout my life have all made me stronger, more determined, and taught me how to navigate situations,” she stipulated, adding that they have “massively” added to her personal growth. “I often feel like if I hadn’t been a minority characteristic, then my life would have taken a different path and I wouldn’t be the person I am today — and I like that person.”

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