Banks hold a place of special public trust in our nation. We depend on them to invest and manage our savings, finance the purchase of homes and supplies, and make sure the local coffee shop gets paid when we swipe our debit card. Because of their power and the critical role they play in our economy, banks enjoy a regulatory regime of privileges. They are insured against failure by the U.S. Government and enjoy public benefits not available to other industries.
But this privileged status has consequences. First, a handful of goliath banks tend to dominate the industry – wielding immense power over capital markets and access to financial services. Second, this sizeable power comes with a parallel duty to remain neutral by avoiding inserting politics into the delivery or administration of financial services. My bank should not be able to decline my card at the gas pump if it thinks my driving habits hurt the environment. Nor should it refuse payment on a check written to a charitable organization if the bank dislikes its mission.
Unfortunately, banks have shown an alarming willingness to do just that in recent years, elevating political agendas above their commitment to provide all customers with excellent service, on a viewpoint-neutral basis. The most notable example took place recently, when JPMorgan Chase denied payment processing services to conservative group Defense of Liberty, claiming that an event featuring mainstream Republican speakers violated a vaguely worded policy that allows employees to deny service based on a user’s viewpoint.
The Viewpoint Diversity Score 2022 Business Index reflects this dangerous trend of banks veering into ideological gatekeeping. The commercial banking industry’s 25 representative companies scored an average of just 13 percent overall.
At the top of this list was Truist Financial, scoring 24 percent overall. The company’s relative success is due primarily to its participation in the survey component of the 2022 Business Index. Survey participation is not just a key component of a company’s Index score; it also demonstrates a baseline commitment to transparency for customers and shareholders alike.
Below, we will unpack how Truist scored on each of the Index’s three sections—public square, market, and workplace—while identifying tangible ways for the company to improve its commitment to respecting religious and ideological diversity.
The public square section of the Index evaluates whether corporate giving practices and public advocacy broadly respect free speech, religious tolerance, and open discourse. With a 38 percent score on the public square section of the Index, Truist outperforms many within its industry but still shows significant room for improvement.
Most notably, Truist has signaled its support for the so-called “Equality Act” by joining the Human Rights Campaign’s “Business Coalition for the Equality Act.” Despite its misleading title, the Act is federal legislation that poses a deliberate and unprecedented threat to free speech, religious freedom, and the progress that women have made toward true equal treatment under the law.
In practice, the Equality Act would coerce business owners who willingly serve everyone to promote messages and celebrate events that conflict with their beliefs. By enshrining sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes in federal law, the Act would harm equal treatment of women by forcing them to compete against men in their own athletic events and share private spaces with men. It would harm religious freedom by forcing uniformity of thought and speech relating to beliefs about marriage, sex, and what it means to be male and female.
Simply put, Truist has no business supporting this ideologically driven bill that would negatively impact its customers, employees, and shareholders.
Unlike many other large banks however, Truist has maintained relative balance in its political giving with just over 30 percent of the company’s political contributions going to congressional candidates with positive legislative track records on free speech and religious liberty, and only 29.5 percent of total contributions going to candidates with negative track records on these core American freedoms.
Still, other data points—including Truist’s charitable giving policy, which excludes all faith-based nonprofits based solely on religious status—shed light on necessary areas of growth within the company. Companies need to respect religious diversity by ensuring that their charitable giving policies don’t bar nonprofits from receiving support simply because of their religious status or beliefs.
With a 24 percent overall score on the workplace section of the Index, Truist has a long way to go toward fostering an internal culture that respects viewpoint diversity.
On the positive side of the ledger, the company earned full points for including religion as a protected class in its workplace nondiscrimination policy and ensuring new hires receive training covering religious discrimination as well as employee religious accommodations. Truist also earned partial credit in multiple categories for acknowledging “diversity of … thought” and other concepts synonymous with “viewpoint diversity” throughout its publicly available diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) literature.
On the negative side of the ledger, the company needs to improve its workplace score by correcting vague and potentially problematic language regarding employees’ ability to speak freely and peaceably exercise their religious beliefs outside of work. Companies like Truist can ensure these rights are protected by adopting and enforcing the Viewpoint Diversity Score’s “Off-Duty Civil Rights” model policy.
Truist also needs to correct course in its employee trainings by stopping its current reliance upon divisive concepts. Truist was one of several major corporations that sponsored a program offered by United Way, titled “a United Way critical race theory ‘Racial Equity 21-Day Challenge’ claiming that America is systemically and institutionally racist, encouraging participants to ‘decolonize [their] mind[s]’ and to get ‘woke at work,’ and urging white people to ‘cede power to people of color.’”
As we’ve written previously, training materials that rely on divisive concepts like critical theory and Marxist categories of “oppressors vs. oppressed” drive a wedge between employees and foster an environment of distrust and suspicion.
Instead of creating and furthering divisions in the workplace, companies like Truist need to identify positive alternatives to current DE&I employee training programs, like BrighterSideHR and Real Unity Training Solutions, which both offer trainings emphasizing the equal dignity of all persons and respect for diverse viewpoints.
Most pertinent to Truist’s 10 million customer households in the U.S., the bank tallies just a 15 percent score on the market section of the Index.
Among the main concerns is Truist’s terms of service policies that allow the company to prohibit payments related to what anonymous company employees deem “hate”, “racial intolerance”, or “racially offensive” speech. Like many such policies, Truist offers no guidance on what would be considered “hateful” or “intolerant.”
That leaves customers liable to adverse actions that include canceled transactions and even debanking for crossing an invisible line. If the company decides to halt a payment or suspend an account, Truist doesn’t even offer its customers a notice of service interruption or cancelation.
Vague and imprecise policies have given banks a blank check to engage in religious and ideological discrimination against clients. Last fall, JPMorgan Chase denied payment processing services to conservative group Defense of Liberty claiming that an event featuring mainstream Republican speakers violated a vaguely worded policy that allows employees to deny service based on a client’s viewpoint.
Although JP Morgan Chase apologized and reversed course, we shouldn’t be duped. We’ve seen this same tactic from social media companies—apologize for censorship until you think you can get away with it, then stop apologizing and censor without giving users recourse.
In order to prevent this situation from harming the reputational integrity of its brand, Truist should follow the Viewpoint Diversity Score model policy by eliminating vague or imprecise terms from its policies, ensuring that it doesn’t inadvertently prohibit expressive activities based on perceived offensiveness from third parties, and clearly stating that it does not discriminate against customers based on their religious or ideological viewpoints.
Finally, Truist’s policies toward vendors and third parties are a mixed bag. For example, Truist confirmed through its response to the survey component of the Index that it requires third parties to adopt specific DE&I programing in order to do business with the company. This unnecessary litmus test hampers the ability of current and potential vendors, suppliers, and contractors to manage their workforces in ways that comport with their diverse missions and values.
At the same time, Truist rightly provides third parties with a high degree of protection against religious or ideological discrimination. As Truist explains in a 2019 report:
“Truist values diversity in all its forms and respects the constitutional and civil rights of all individuals and the companies they own or represent, including the freedom of speech and freedom of religion. Truist does not and will not discriminate against any supplier or service provider based upon the exercise of these rights and expects its suppliers and service providers to select subcontractors on a nondiscriminatory basis as well.”
Call to Action
Truist should build on its record of transparency by continuing to participate in the survey component of the Index, while taking steps to adopt recommended policies and practices that will bolster respect for religious and ideological diversity throughout the entire scope of its enterprise.