Fintech’s workplace culture is more “brutal” and “aggressive” than other sectors, but it’s not the toxic environment portrayed in the media, say experts.
Fintech is prized as a UK economic jewel but the stratospheric rise of some of its startup darlings has been marred by accusations that it has come at a human cost.
Claims of toxic working environments, macho cultures, unachievable targets, unpaid work and high staff turnover have blighted fintechs’ copybook over the years.
Corporate culture under spotlight
Fintech’s corporate culture was again under the spotlight this week after neobank Revolut, which has been subject to a string of working environment controversies, said it was parachuting in a team as it looks to address criticism of its workplace culture.
The team, which will include psychology and behavioural science experts, are part of a package of measures by Revolut to inspire a more “human” approach to working life and ensure that staff are being “approachable” and “respectful”.
In the past, Revolut’s Stakhanovite working culture, exemplified by CEO and co-founder Nik Storonsky’s clarion call to “get shit done”, has involved grueling 13-hour workdays and weekend work, leading to staff reportedly being driven out.
As part of this week’s cultural revamp, gone is Revolut’s unambiguous pledge to find “execution machines”, replaced with softer staff mantras like “shoot for the moon” and “push the envelope”.
Yet Revolut, valued at £27billion and with over 25 million retail customers, is not the only fintech to face questions over its corporate culture (Freetrade, for example, has also faced criticism over its workplace culture) while traditional banks have also not been immune to the charge.
Fintech employees “satisfied”
A look at jobs site Glassdoor shows Revolut has a 3.6 rating by workers, equating to “satisfied”, with workers complaining about work-life balance but praising it in other areas, like a place to acquire transferable skills. Revolut’s CEO has a 75 per cent approval rating, according to Glassdoor.
Revolut is slightly outperformed by rival neobanks Monzo and Starling, which have 3.8 and 3.9 ratings respectively.
On fintech as a whole having workplace culture issues, experts point out that fintech today is a broad church (encompassing neobanks, investment apps, lenders, B2B players and more), so cultures might vary among the various fintech sub-industries.
“Some fintechs have had a reputation for a ‘growth at all costs’ mindset synonymous with burnout.”
Bruce Davis, a co-founder of Zopa and co-founder and joint MD at Abundance Investment, says it would be “dangerous” to lump fintech under one umbrella.
Davis says: “If you are a regulated firm then culture should certainly be a priority, just as it is in any bank or other large financial institutions, but the systems and controls you need in a small company are very different.
“Initiatives such as BCorp force companies (big and small) to think more strategically and holistically about the needs of all their stakeholders – which of course includes employees. Fintech is no more or less immune to the problems of corporate culture experienced in other sectors.”
Startups can be “brutal”
But fintech recruitment executives disagree and say, unlike other industries, fintech can be “brutal” and that candidates can be put off by its “aggressive” workplace reputation.
Ben Rosen, founder and CEO of recruitment firm Inspiring Interns, said: “There is a common ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality in the fintech industry which may be taken too seriously when it comes to explaining an aggressive or toxic culture.
“As the fintech industry is relatively new, many startups are competing with each other as a survival of the fittest approach to success.”
Katherine Farquharson, director of Storm2, the global fintech recruitment agency, which has over half a million fintech candidates in its network, said: “Compared to financial services, tech is more brutal I would say. There is less emphasis on friendships and more emphasis on business. It is harder to build friendships in fintech.”
Millennial candidates put off by fintech’s negative perception
Rosen adds that millennial-generation candidates can be put off by a negative perception of fintech.
He said: “Recruits are often concerned with the low gender diversity pool of the fintech industry. Most of our recruits are millennials, who often regard contribution to a business and ethical values as the top of their list when choosing a company to work for.
“This can be challenging in the fintech industry when it is associated with an aggressive reputation.”
Fintech no longer macho culture
Gemma Young, chief growth officer, TechPassport, who has worked in fintech for over 20 years, says fintech, however, has now shifted away from its macho culture, which once dogged it.
She recalls being worried about the impact having her first child would have on her fintech career.
Young says: “I remember the pressures of having to return to work full time with no flexible options, as a woman wanting a family you had to not talk about it and then almost pretend you didn’t have constraints at home as it would hold you back.
“Even looking for a job shortly after I got married I remember being told ‘what’s the point you will go have kids soon.’”
Amid the current tough economic times, one fintech executive says the gulf between grow-at-all-costs, “hustle culture’ fintechs and “employee first” startups is widening.
Helen Beurier, chief people officer, Zopa, said: “Some fintechs have had a reputation for a ‘growth at all costs’ mindset synonymous with burnout. The lived experiences of recent times, of the pandemic and of economic uncertainty have forced firms to prioritise sustainable growth and profitability.
“This requires stability, loyalty and productivity from happy and engaged employees.”
Corporate culture criticism overegged by media
Or could it be, as another executive suggests, that fintech’s workplace challenges are no different to other industries, but have been exaggerated by the media.
Ralph Rogge, CEO and co-founder of Crezco, said: “I doubt the fintech sector is disproportionately susceptible to cultural challenges over other sectors.
“It is just overly represented in the media. Uber supposedly has a terrible culture, Volkswagen’s emission scandal was shocking, while Tesla is the subject of a string of harassment accusations. Is the auto industry also suffering from workplace cultural challenges?
“Finance sectors are likely more easily associated with avaricious vices because their trade is handling money, not building bridges, educating students or solving cancer.”
Culture comes from top down
By many metrics, Revolut, which is currently trying to secure a UK banking licence as it looks to become a ‘super app’, has been a runaway success.
It has snapped up over 25 million retail customers in just over seven years and it has come a long way since its origins as a money transfer company, boasting dozens of products on both the personal and business side of the company.
Storonsky has been crucial to this success and his brusque management style might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but delivers results.
Martin Campbell, a fintech consultant, believes Storonsky’s leadership style has been leveraged to damage fintech as a whole.
Campbell said: “Nik Storonsky’s Revolut has become the poster child for struggles with corporate culture. But most believe that as a real problem, it is limited to that firm and is a result of the personal style of the CEO, rather than anything that is common across fintech as a sector.”
Other startups will emulate Revolut and its CEO
But Rogge says that the success of Revolut and its CEO will mean that many fintechs will try to copy their approach.
He said: “Given the success of Revolut and Nikolay Storonsky, there are likely many startups trying to emulate them in every way rather than being true to themselves.”
However, he adds the caveat that “we saw the same with Apple and Steve Jobs. It doesn’t work”.