Dear Mr Gulliver,
During your results call you suggested, in response to the criticism HSBC has faced over the activities of its Swiss private bank, that we are holding large corporations to higher standards than others – the military, the church, the civil service, charities, even the media. That we seem to expect you and your chairman, Douglas Flint, to be aware of everything that is being done within an organisation employing roughly 250,000 people.
I’m sorry, but this is one of the more ridiculous things I’ve heard a banking executive say in recent years, and I’ve been around long enough to have been on the receiving end of a few real doozies.
Now, I know you work long hours, and that you spend them immersed in your bank. So you might not have had all that much time to pay attention to what has been going on around you.
Let me bring you up to date: I’m afraid that nearly all of the organisations you mentioned, and quite a few others besides, have found themselves blinking uncomfortably under the same sort of spotlight under which you and your organisation now find yourselves.
Take the media… You may recall that certain journalists engaged in phone-hacking. It resulted in a huge scandal that led to several reporters and editors going to prison. Their colleagues working for rival organisations ensured the story was given a very similar treatment to that which HSBC is receiving. Media executives were (rightly) not exempted from criticism.
Charities, too, have found themselves called to account. Just this month the chief executive of the Global Aid Trust stepped down amid accusations that the organisation (as distinct from himself) had been supporting Islamic extremism.
The pay of senior executives working in the voluntary sector has come under fire, even if their incomes represent what would amount to a rounding error for you and your colleagues. Just ask Save the Children.
Public bodies have taken a similar beating. Your press team could surely call up the coverage of Rotherham Council and the way it handled allegations of sexual abuse if you doubt me.
I could go on. Suffice to say that the banking industry’s leaders are far from alone when it comes to facing criticism.
And there’s a lot to criticise. In addition to Swiss tax dodging, how about foreign exchange rate rigging, money laundering, tax evasion, PPI mis-selling? Given that little lot, it would look decidedly odd if you didn’t find yourselves taking flak. To suggest otherwise is beneath you.
You have claimed that it is unfair to be held account for activities that took place in a huge organisation. Well I’m sorry, but get used to being in a leadership position. Ministers resign all the time as a result of misdeeds committed by those beneath them. Sometimes it takes a while, as they cling desperately to the trappings of office. But it still happens, as it should.
You and your boardroom colleagues are responsible for strategy, standards and setting the culture of your institution. I’m afraid that as much as the Swiss affair was a failure of the staff in that business – as was the Mexican money-laundering scandal, as was forex rigging – they were also institutional failures. They were facilitated by the way HSBC was run. That is why the bank is being hauled over the coals.
Ah, but, you might say, the allegations we’ve faced about our conduct in Switzerland are historical. They are “legacy” issues. We’re the ones clearing up the mess.
I accept that you were not in control of HSBC at the time your Swiss unit was actively involved in helping people avoid, and allegedly evade, the tax they were due.
But you have held a senior role in HSBC for a number of years. So have a large number of your colleagues on the executive committee. While you were not directly responsible for what went on, you were all part of a system that allowed a string of abuses to happen.
Prior to these recent scandals, HSBC liked to act as if it was different from the other big UK banks, with its large reservoir of deposits, the fact that it had no need for a bail out, and with its august international business and reputation.
You have used this to stand off to one side, basking in the glow of your own hubris.
This has to end. Most of the 250,000 people who work at HSBC are entirely blameless, particularly the hard-working hordes paid a pittance to serve your customers from call centres or in branches.
As you yourself said, the HSBC brand has been tarnished. It can’t be much fun working for a bank and then going home to endure a barrage of questions about what it has been up to.
You have not helped your colleagues much with your statement today. You have accepted a huge bonus and claimed it was entirely justifiable to do so, and you have still yet to issue an apology without equivocation. That’s not what I would regard as leadership.
You, and too many of your senior colleagues, appear to feel a sense of entitlement. It’s time to give that a rest.
In six months’ time, when you present your interims, if this is still rumbling try this: try saying we’re sorry; we’re working hard to fix this. And then leave it at that. Try giving some of your bonus money to charity. Try showing a little humility. Try turning your bank into a better corporate citizen. Then you might go some way towards restoring a once proud brand to the position it used to hold.
James MooreReuse content