The uncomfortable conversations began the moment the 48-page report landed in senior managers’ inboxes at HSBC Holdings Plc last month. Soon, attention turned to the unlikely author who was emailing it.

A junior manager had invited more than 100 colleagues to talk with him about diversity and racism at the firm and then distilled their responses into a Wall Street-style presentation. It opens with a poem he wrote about hoping for change, before laying out his scathing conclusion: The bank is unlikely to meet its diversity goals because of discrimination and racism in the workplace, which is prompting recruits to leave.

One page ticks off a list of comments employees have endured.

“I just don’t like you. I’m not allowed to tell you why.”

“You’ve got all the right qualifications and you’ve done a great job, you’re just not the right fit for the team—it’s just a vibe.”

“It’s never been harder than right now, being a White man in banking.”

In past decades, under a strict Wall Street code valuing discretion above all else, the junior manager might have been as good as terminated for rebroadcasting such ugly accounts. But after a year of widespread protests over racial inequality and corporate pledges to do better, and in the month that Juneteenth became a U.S. federal holiday, a different reckoning has been unfolding inside HSBC.

The author, Ian Clarke, is still at the bank where he’s spent 15 years, working in New York as a vice president in a unit that helps companies hold and move their money, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Officials at the firm have opened an internal review to take a deeper look into his findings and investigate the incidents he described.

“We are committed to improving diversity and inclusion at HSBC,” the bank said in a statement emailed by a spokesperson. “And whilst we are making progress, we know we have more work to do. When colleagues raise concerns we take them seriously and are looking into the issues raised.”

Industrywide Frustrations
Many of the frustrations Clarke channeled from colleagues to HSBC’s leadership resonate industrywide. Big banks have long acknowledged the need to cultivate more diversity within their vast workforces and senior ranks, but have been slow to make progress. Accounts of slights and overt discrimination in the mostly White, mostly male world of finance keep spilling out.

As HSBC has ramped up efforts to improve, it’s vowed to at least double the number of Black staff in senior leadership roles by 2025 and committed to publishing data annually on ethnic representation and pay gaps in its workforce. Among other measures, its U.S. business is tying managers’ performance ratings to progress on diversity and inclusion.

At the end of last year, the number of Black staff holding senior leadership roles stood at 0.7% globally, according to HSBC’s latest annual report. The bank’s work to raise this to 1.3% will include partnering with specialist recruitment firms and improving the development opportunities for Black employees.

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