Friday 13 September, 2013 by Uncle Spike
“Do not wind up the inspectors!”…
That was always the advice given to staff in the retail banking branches where I worked. When faced with a questioning by the inspectors, one should never, and I mean never, crack jokes or try to wind them up as part of some comic prank.
Back in the early 1990’s, I found myself working for one of the large UK banking giants. In fact, at the time it was a Building Society, a business mutually owned by its members rather than a stock floated shareholder enterprise, but all that was long ago. Anyway, not long before I joined, the district branch had received the lowest grade inspection report possible. What that meant was that upon close examination of the administrative processes and procedures followed in that branch, the operation just wasn’t up to scratch; in fact, miles off. The result was a top level management change, with the appointment of some ball-busting district manager with a reputation for taking no prisoners in his dogged pursuance of administrative excellence.
Needless to say, the next 2 or 3 years were a heady mix of mental exhaustion, non-executive stress, jittery nerves, pain, countless hours of unpaid overtime, tears and the odd bout of management sponsored ritual humiliation. It was though, no mean feat to drag a seriously under-performing large district sales and administrative support centre up to the required standard. One of the bi-products and necessary evils of such a journey was the fact that you were always under the threat of a return by… The Inspectors!
Inspectors, by their very nature were indeed pretty scary types. It was rumoured that whilst most were pernickety former banking administrators or branch managers, some were even former police detectives – such was the formidability of their reputation. Their job was to pounce… sorry, I mean turn up unannounced at a branch of the bank and immediately begin a top to bottom inspection of every single facet of the operation, from security to admin procedures, the lot. Every staff member would be interviewed to some extent too, every scrap of paperwork examined, and managers and supervisors tormented within a hairsbreadth of their very survival.
The ever-looming threat of an inspection was, however, always quite a strong means of instilling discipline and focus within the office. Those who had survived the last ordeal (and there were not many, most had been chopped) were naturally all too aware of how an inspection went down. For the rest of us, we had only learned through the power of gossip and reputation to fear the fateful day when 6-8 suited and booted deadpan professionals came marching up to the reception desk, demanding to see the district manager immediately, and all brandishing their ever-so-scary Head Office ID badges at the unfortunate receptionist who just happened to have been allotted that fateful slot on the rota.
To be honest, the guys weren’t bad guys at all, they had a job to do, and a difficult one at that. They were tasked with ensuring that the public’s money entrusted to our organisation was duly looked after and that the processes and procedures in place were all, and I mean all, dutifully followed to the letter of the law. To do that, they naturally had to be somewhat aloof, you know, detached from the camaraderie of the staff and management alike. I did get that.
Anyway, a couple of years after I started, that fateful day arrived. The inspectors were in our branch. It had been rumoured they were ‘around’ after a couple of other former failing branches had just been ‘done’, so whilst not perhaps a huge shock, that feeling of your gut immediately tightening upon hearing the wildfire news upstairs on the admin floor was nevertheless pretty intense. Over the ensuing 11 business days, we continued to operate ‘business as usual’, but with the inspectors crawling through our work with a fine toothcomb and maybe even forensic gloves and a fair collection of evidence bags (or so it seemed at the time).
The inspectors had the entire place covered. Every room had a presence, from 8am right through till the last lights were turned off at night. It was without a doubt, a stressful time. The paperwork and system inspections were one thing; any damage was already done and you just had to hope you had not missed anything. But the interviews and the odd questions thrown at us were another matter. Most of us were at one point or another, quizzed about procedures, rules and regulations – often with the beady, but scared eyes of our own management not far away; praying that one or more of us did not shatter their dream of securing a reasonable branch inspection result.
Although none of us actually saw the numerical results from our own work; we certainly knew if we’d stuffed it up – the management saw to that. It was overall and especially in hindsight, a rewarding but tense couple of weeks. But apart from the stress, there were naturally a few lighter moments that I recall – and most were attributable to a certain young cashier by the name of Matthew. I have not seen him in some 20 years, nor do I have any idea what became of him, but I do remember him, in particularly his sense of humour, sense of adventure and most of all, his complete disregard for the apparently generic acceptance that the management and therefore the inspectors were to be revered and/or feared. He was his own man (albeit a young one, at perhaps 19 years I think).
To the astonishment and fear of the management, Matthew was selected for interview by the inspectors on the subjects of Security and Health & Safety – both carried the heaviest weighting and the thought of this rebellious teenager taking part in these procedural investigations must have been like a skewer through the heart to our boss. To his credit, the lad did not fail. He did not embarrass the branch, his colleagues, or indeed himself – bravo Matthew.
He did, however, do it in his own way… of course J
On the question on “Where is your nearest fire exit”, he sat there and scratched his head, and then simply looked at the inspector deadpan and said, “Out the nearest bloody window mate, where else?”. Now it was difficult to tell really, was he being facetious, or simply stating the obvious? The less than amused inspector seemed to rise to the bait initially, but then relaxed after he clarified his response with a few more appropriately worded answers.
And then there was this little gem. On the question of computer security, he was, quite off the cuff, asked for his system password. It was something they would throw at unsuspecting staff members who, in the wish to appear helpful, might just blurt out their secret. So when they asked Matthew, everyone froze – surely he would not divulge his password, a sin beyond all others in the field of modern banking. His response was simple and said with the straight face of an experienced poker player… “NOYDB”. The inspector looked up and I’ll swear he smiled – having tripped up someone to reveal this most golden of secrets. He was asked again to confirm his password. The response was the same, “NOYDB”. Just as the inspector was marking his clipboard and preparing to march off gleefully to challenge the district manager, Matthew clarified his answer a little more… “NOYDB, None Of Your Damned Business”.
Whilst technically his answer was not the monumental failure it had at first appeared to represent, it was at the same time an ever so slightly risky approach to take – the inspectors were not known for their sense of humour!
How the hell we got through that inspection, I’ll never know. The end result was, thankfully, a solid inspection, a PASS, so all in all, these moments were laughed about for months after. But I would hate to have thought of young Matthew’s fate had we been given another ‘FAIL’.