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News & blogs: Blogs

Blog: Senior Managers & Certification Regime (SM&CR): HR considerations for collections firms

05 July 2018  
Katharine Harle

UKCCC guest blog
Katharine Harle is a Financial Services Regulatory Senior Associate at Dentons LLP; the world’s largest law firm. Before joining the firm, she spent nearly five years as a Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) lawyer. She will be delivering sessions in the Compliance & HR stream at the UK Credit & Collections Conference (UKCCC) 2018 on 13 September focusing on the Senior Managers & Certification Regime (SMCR).


Culture and governance is one of the seven cross-sector priorities in the FCA’s 2018/19 business plan with the role of senior individuals high on the agenda for the regulator. This is all in the name of improving consumer and market outcomes by driving cultural change to protect the integrity of the UK financial system.

A key part of this culture change is focusing on individual accountability of senior management to ensure that risks caused by leadership behavior are carefully managed. The Senior Managers & Certification Regime (SM&CR) is the chosen vehicle for implementing this and embedding the new guidelines is now a key focus for credit and collections firms.

However, this is not just a ‘tick box’ exercise, it has far reaching implications for the whole employee lifecycle and throws up not only regulatory/compliance but also HR and cultural issues at all levels.


Public trust and customer engagement

Building public trust is vital for the whole of the financial services sector but has always been a particular challenge for collections firms some of which may have less brand awareness than, say, high street banks, and are not always viewed favourably by consumers. The challenge when you read the FCA guidelines on SMCR is that they are geared towards firms, like banks, which 'sell' to customers and the relationship between collections firms and their 'customers' is more complex. This means that collections firms will need to look at SM&CR, and especially the Conduct Rules, in a slightly different way and adapt the FCA guidance for their specialist areas of work.


Training is a big area for consideration in the implementation of SM&CR. None of it is groundbreaking (eg most of the Conduct Rules are things that most people would agree that staff should be abiding by) but the difficulty is in tailoring training to make it bespoke to organisations and teams to bring the guidelines to life within their sector/role. The CSA could play a big role in coming up with innovative training packages adapted to the collections industry and the specific roles within it.


Wider cultural issues

As I have seen in other areas of financial services, there are firms which want to just to do the absolute minimum with SM&CR but there are also firms which are using it as an opportunity to look at the bigger picture of what they are do, how they are run, whether they have the right people at the right level in the right roles, with the right resource etc. Given the complexity of the collections sector outlined above, I would recommend the latter. With such a transformation in ways of working in recent years, I'm sure many have already been through change processes and it may be that, in some areas, all SM&CR calls for is documenting this. In my experience in the banking sector the firms that get most real benefit are those whose senior management and HR get really involved in and understand the new requirements.


Recruitment, retention, reward and references

SM&CR is all about the cultural fit and skills of individuals within the business at a senior level and below and therefore has a direct impact on HR issues such as recruitment and remuneration. SM&CR makes senior managers personally accountable for hiring the right people and so will likely highlight any existing staff who are not the right fit for their role/the organisation and these people will need to be identified and dealt with as quickly as possible to limit any potential risks. I have seen this have a really positive impact where individuals with a long record of poor conduct are finally removed.

This is good reason to invest in identifying the right people with the right skills who will likely stay with the organisation for longer and have a greater impact. SM&CR guidelines and FCA expectations should be used to inform job descriptions and interview questions.

The cultural values of senior managers and how they demonstrate these in practice (eg speaking up and challenging poor behaviour) will also have an impact on those beneath them and will help organisations to retain the best talent suited to the environment created.

This is all closely linked to how firms look at rewarding and remunerating people. Incentives should be looked at holistically in line with a clear set of values and culture that everything else falls into line with. What behaviours does the bonus scheme aim to encourage? What messages does the last round of promotions send out to junior members of staff about how they should act?

Regulatory references, both in terms of asking new recruits for them and giving them to former employees, will also be a big issue since all Conduct Rule breaches which result in disciplinary action will need to be highlighted and reported to the regulator. This includes self-reporting and 360 degree reporting of colleagues, and higher stakes mean firms will be heavily scrutinised by individuals and their lawyers for the way in which they investigate and decide to take disciplinary action for Conduct Rule breaches. How this fits with GDPR and the data organisations can hold/for how long is complicated but FCA regulatory reference requirements should generally always trump the right to be forgotten. Some banks take the approach that they won't hire anyone with a Conduct Rule breach on their record but I predict that over time, employers will become more lenient and be able to distinguish between true "bad apples" and genuine mistakes/one-off incidents with mitigating circumstances. I doubt it will be the case (and it is certainly not the intention of the regime) that a single breach on your record will mean that you cannot get a senior job in financial services in the longer term.


Practical implementation

When it comes to implementation, I always advise firms not to underestimate the challenge of the certification and Conduct Rules element of SM&CR. The senior manager aspects are actually quite straight forward and unsurprisingly get a lot of senior management attention! The stuff that will take up lots of time and resource is getting the new processes and systems right eg monitoring Conduct Rules breaches, deciding how they're treated, ensuring consistency of decisions, changes to people's contracts/the employee handbook including grievance procedures etc.

Firms could get an 'off the shelf' solution or buy someone in for a year to implement the project, but ideally whatever you do needs to be tailored to the individual business and how it works already so the solution fits with all existing processes and systems, and doesn't just add an extra layer of complication and manuals. There are lots and lots of small changes here, there and everywhere to make and making them all fit together ideally requires in-house resource from people who know the business inside out. If you haven't updated your contracts/policies recently, it can be an ideal opportunity to do that at the same time. For big organisations, a key challenge is ensuring consistency of approach once all of this is in place eg how you ensure fair treatment for different people in different departments.

Smaller firms must obviously look at how they do this proportionately. Finding someone within the organisation who is already embedded into the culture and who can read the consultation papers, attend SMCR events, and 'own' the implementation in-house, just outsourcing the bits they don't have the capability to do (eg legal contracts), will likely be more cost effective and have a greater long term impact.

How much time and money is spent on it is down to the risk appetite of the organisation. The credit and collections sector is under a lot of scrutiny from the regulator so can't afford not to devote at least some effort to it but needs to be balanced with what's affordable and proportionate. Working together as an industry through the CSA could be a big part of the answer.

I’m looking forward to running a Q&A clinic with the FCA’s Richard Fox, and also exploring some of the HR issues around SMCR at different stages of the employee lifecycle at the UK Credit & Collections Conference on 13 September 2018 at Crowne Plaza Stratford-upon-Avon.



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