Masters of the universe or parallel universes?

By Tanya Barman

Some time ago at an event in London I was chatting with a senior leader from a top global bank. On learning that I worked on ethics, he said he felt for his “people” and all the “banker bashing”. I agreed - it must be hard to feel associated with the bad feeling and public distrust of the sector.

Ultimately though, it was the leadership who had let, not only customers and the public down, but also, critically, their staff. And it should be the leadership who work hard at repairing reputations and enabling the majority of employees feel proud of their work and endeavors. He had no response.

Certainly the individuals I deal with on the end of a phone to conduct my banking affairs (with a bank that actually trades, successfully, on its reputation of being ethical) couldn’t be more helpful. So it is wrong to taint all those who work with such a wide and varied sector with the same bad image.

It occurs to me that whilst the maelstrom of the Barclays scandal builds, with further revelations from other banks ahead, how hard it must be for so many of the sector’s workers who no doubt strive to “do the right thing”. Whilst other forces within were doing so much wrong.

Whilst watching events unfold on the BBC feed as Mr Diamond was cross-examined by MPs from the UK’s Treasury Select Committee, I was struck by the post from a viewer “I was once a proud employee of Barclays and am now ashamed to mention that I worked for them”. This was further emphasized by a report that evening in London’s Evening Standard headlined “Outraged New York Staff ‘plotted Dimaond ousting'” outlining how bankers in the Wall Street division of the bank felt “enraged by his reluctance to quit”. Some of the staff had previously worked at Lehman and no doubt again felt failed by their leadership.

Andrea Leadson MP conducted some aggressive questioning at the hearing. As a former Barclays employee she clearly showed disdain. “Do you live in a parallel universe to the rest of the UK?” she demanded. “You say it’s the culture that saved Barclays, but it’s the culture that’s the problem.”

When questioned on what would be the procedure of alerting a fraudulent risk, Mr Diamond struggled, responding he didn’t have the policy to hand. Eventually, he supposed they would need to alert both their boss and to compliance. His confusion surprised me, on what should be an obvious and simple process (which closely reflect AICPA and CIMA guidelines).

Throughout the hearing Mr Diamond professed his love for the company. Yet when asked if he could recall the founding Quaker principles of Barclays, the very ethos of the bank that he had served for 17 years and held in such high esteem, he could not. A shame, as the principles of Honesty, Integrity and Plain Dealing sound simple yet powerful enough for me to be a daily operating mantra and would take care of the issue of alerting risks, without having to think about rules. They also reflect the key principles of both AICPA and CIMA codes.

It is this failing in leadership, this disconnect from what is going on in certain parts of the business that is a real risk that is highlighted in the CGMA Managing Responsible Business report.

Speaking at a lecture a few weeks ago Douglas Flint, a CIMA Fellow and chairman of HSBC, commented that regulators should “care more about tone from the top, how individuals are screened for behavioural characteristics when recruited and how ethics and values are taught and reinforced”. All issues outlined in the CGMA ethical checklist and worksheet.

How does your organisation rate? And what universe does your leadership inhabit?