A lot of attention and praise has recently been heaped upon hospital workers, and deservedly so. But there’s another group that has also been on the front lines: bank branch employees. While approximately two-thirds of all bank employees have been able to work safely from home during the pandemic, the other one-third have been going into work as always, serving personal and business customers mask-to-mask. That means thousands of workers in approximately 6,000 bank branches across Canada.
The branch used to be the source of bank leaders. In the modern era, CEOs such as Matt Barrett of Bank of Montreal, Al Flood of CIBC and Allan Taylor of Royal Bank started out in a branch. Nowadays, such long ladder climbs are unlikely. You need an MBA, Harvard executive summer courses, and senior experience in various divisions to get to the top.
In those early years, branch work could be dangerous. Tellers each had a pistol visible inside their cage, even though they may have had too little training and were terrible at target practice using guns that often didn’t work well. In the 1970s, head offices realized that the guns were not stopping robberies and were likely unsafe so all firearms were collected and decommissioned. But branch work remains problematic. There are still hold-ups that mean staffers need time off to recover from the confrontations.
It took decades for women to assume their proper place in the bank branch system. Over the years, as more and more women worked in branches, they eventually formed about 70 percent of the workforce. Even so, in addition to working the teller line, their main role was often helping train the male manager who was on his way through to a larger branch or a supervisory role at head office. When I was growing up in Guelph, I had friends whose fathers were managers of local banks. They were revered and often lived in fine bank-owned houses on good streets. We called the father of one friend who ran the local Bank of Nova Scotia, the bossa nova, after a type of dance that was popular at the time. Not that any of us could do this particular samba.
It wasn’t until the 1960s when women began to be promoted to accountant or manager in the branches. Today, women comprise about 40 percent of boards of directors and senior managers at the Big Six Banks. So, next time you go into your local branch, say thank you for your service throughout the pandemic. And thanks for the progress, not just with easy-to-use bank machines, but within the bank itself.