Time to bring back the big "values" signs at Barclays?

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When Jes Staley arrived at Barclays in November 2015, the large "values" signs plastered liberally around by his predecessor Antony Jenkins were taken down. Employees of Barclays' investment bank gave a sigh of relief. Jenkins, whose career began in the retail bank, was big on values. When the signs went, the implication was that Staley - a died-in-the-wool investment banker with an equity capital markets background, was not.

Of course, Staley talked a good talk. Before he turned up he sent a memo to Barclays staff calling for increased integrity at the bank. "Trust is the most precious asset a bank can have," said the memo. " I feel keenly we must continue to strengthen trust in Barclays...There can be no retreat from becoming a values driven organisation which conducts itself with integrity at all times."

18 months later, Staley stands reprimanded after breaking the trust of his employees by trying to find out the identity of a Barclays whistleblower. Integrity be damned. Staley was never going to be Antony Jenkins, but nor was he supposed to be a Bob Diamond.

The affair contains some particularly troubling elements.

  • Staley's intervention only became apparent thanks to another whistleblower. The statement on Barclays' website says the issue first came to light as a result of, "concern by an employee."
  • Staley was trying and help a friend. ('..he was trying to protect a colleague who had experienced personal difficulties in the past from what he believed to be an unfair attack.') This may sound honourable, but it suggests that Staley's prone to partiality and is willing to break rules for people he's close to. This is how highly-politicized organizations are born.
  • Staley hired this friend, thereby casting doubt on his involvement in Barclays' recruitment process. Is Staley willing to bend the rules to hire and help his mates?
  • Staley was initially told that it was "not appropriate" for him to try to identify the author of the whistleblowing letters, but he did so anyway after mistakenly thinking he had clearance to do so.
  • Staley enlisted the help of Barclays Group Information Security team and a U.S. law enforcement agency to track down the whistleblower.
  • Staley somehow didn't realize that trying to find establish the identity of a whistleblower is forbidden. ('The Board has concluded that Jes Staley, group chief executive officer, honestly, but mistakenly, believed that it was permissible to identify the author of the letter.) Really? This is a man who has held senior positions in banking since the 1980s.

For anyone who cared to look, the signs were evident in Barclays' annual report. While Jenkins and even Bob Diamond used the reports to proclaim their saintliness, Staley was more business-like. He spent more time noting that Barclays was succeeding in its restructuring agenda than banging the drum for virtue. As the chart below shows, values at Barclays appear to have peaked three years ago.

This shouldn't be a huge surprise. Staley wasn't installed to heal Barclays' ethical transgressions but to turn the business around. Unlike Jenkins, Staley never aspired to corporate canonization: at J.P. Morgan he seemingly argued with Matt Zames over his lack of focus on regulatory changes at the investment bank. Staley's personal objectives for 2016 were all about structural reform, improved profitability and cost efficiency. - Ethics were only mentioned in the context of his inculcation of a "performance ethic."

Even so, Staley is being punished for his transgression: Barclays says Staley will suffer a "very significant pay cut" as a result.  Nonetheless, he'll earn at least £2.35m in fixed pay for 2016, plus £169k in taxable benefits, plus £396k in pensions payments - making £2.9m ($3.6m) that's unalterably his own.

Meanwhile, Barclays' whistleblowers should be emboldened by the castigation of their CEO. Or not. One former whistleblower tells us banks always try to discern the identity of whistleblowers and keep very close tabs on anyone they think likely to contact the regulator. "It's human nature," he says, adding that blowing the whistle almost always damages a financial services career. "The rewards are moral, not financial."

Contact: sbutcher@efinancialcareers.com

Photo credit: God by Albert is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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