Business & Tech

Shoes appear to make the man, much to Britain’s chagrin

Candidates from less-affluent backgrounds in Britain are being shut out of investment banking jobs because of their dress, their accent, and their manner of speech, according to a report by the Social Mobility Commission.
Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images
Candidates from less-affluent backgrounds in Britain are being shut out of investment banking jobs because of their dress, their accent, and their manner of speech, according to a report by the Social Mobility Commission.

LONDON — The right pair of oxfords can make or break a potential job candidate in staid investment banking circles in Britain, according to a report released Thursday.

Candidates from less-affluent backgrounds in Britain are being shut out of investment banking jobs, particularly those involving meeting clients in corporate finance, because of their dress, their accent, and their manner of speech, according to the report released by the Social Mobility Commission, an advisory body created by the British government in 2010.

Researchers at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the University of Birmingham found that some managers placed as much importance on whether a potential hire fit the traditional, polished image of an investment banker as on their skills and qualifications.

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The report, “Socio-Economic Diversity in Life Sciences and Investment Banking,” also found that managers who hired people for corporate finance jobs tended to recruit from a small pool of elite universities, such as the Cambridge, Oxford, and the London School of Economics.

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Investment banks, the report found, are making an effort to open front-office roles to applicants from nonprivileged backgrounds through outreach programs and other initiatives that focus on work experience, internships, and skills training, but these remain “relatively small scale.”

Bankers in Britain are expected to be much more technically savvy than ever, but image remains a barrier if a job involves meeting clients on a regular basis, the report said.

An ill-fitting suit, the wrong haircut, or a lower-class accent can quickly eliminate a potential hire from corporate finance roles, according to the findings.

As an example, the researchers found that wearing brown shoes with a business suit was generally considered unacceptable among British investment bankers, but a similar judgment did not apply to bankers from Continental Europe, where the shoes were more commonplace.

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“A further qualification is that some bankers in corporate finance may ‘get away’ with wearing brown shoes perhaps, for example, if they are sufficiently senior,” the report said.

Questions of dress code almost always concerned only male business attire, “underlining the strong association between investment banking and masculinity,” the report said.

It indicated that these subtle messages in dress are a way for individuals to signal their allegiance to “tribes” in the City of London, the traditional financial center of Britain, and to reassure colleagues of their willingness to fit in.

Such hurdles can be disheartening to jobseekers.

One candidate told researchers that his mentor had said that, while he had done well in an interview and was “clearly quite sharp,” he was not the right “fit” for the bank because he was not polished enough.

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“He looked at me and said: ‘See that tie you’re wearing? It’s too loud. Like you can’t wear that tie with the suit that you’re wearing,’ ” the unidentified candidate is quoted in the report as saying. He added, “What kind of industry is this where I can be told that I’m a good candidate, I’m sharp, but I’m not polished enough?”

Social mobility is an important issue in Britain, where class and economic background can still play a part in how far a person advances.

Prime Minister Theresa May, when taking office in July, said that improving the opportunities for people from all walks of life would be a priority in her government.