Inquiries, Apologies and HR Lessons

Last month, we reported on an investigation into Barclays CEO James Staley’s handling of a whistleblower’s complaint at the British banking and financial services giant.

How did Staley find himself on British authorities’ radar? By enlisting Barclays’ internal security team in an effort to unmask an anonymous employee who had sent letters to Barclays officials alleging that an executive hired by Staley had “acted erratically” in a previous job.

Naturally, the bank’s leadership caught wind of Staley’s ill-conceived plan and the regulators’ inquiry that ensued. They were not pleased.

Barclays Chairman John McFarlane, for example, reportedly made his disappointment with Staley quite clear in a one-on-one meeting with the embattled chief executive. Meanwhile, the Barclays board determined that sanctions for Staley’s actions would include a “very significant compensation adjustment,” according to a statement from the bank.

Having already felt the wrath of the chairman and the board, Staley faced some pretty frustrated shareholders earlier this week.

As the New York Times reports, Staley took part in the bank’s annual meeting in London on Wednesday, where one shareholder called for him to step down from the stage upon which he and McFarlane stood to address those in attendance. Another asked that Staley step down from his role as CEO.

For his part, Staley offered an apology to investors, just weeks after going to the Barclays board with hat in hand.

“I feel it is important that I acknowledge to you—our shareholders—that I made a mistake in becoming involved in an issue which I should have left to the business to deal with,” the Times reports Staley telling investors. “I have apologized to the board, and I would today like to apologize to you as well, for that error.”

Staley is far from being out of the woods, of course. British regulators are still looking into his missteps. And that “very significant compensation adjustment” is still to come, with the board planning to make that tweak to his bonus after the investigation is complete.

Nevertheless, Staley was re-elected to the Barclays board at the recent shareholders’ meeting. And he seems to still have the support of his chairman. The Times quotes McFarlane as saying that Staley simply “thought he had a green light” to send the company’s internal security team in to identify the author of the aforementioned letters.

“He went through the green light and it was actually red,” said McFarlane, who has dismissed calls for Staley’s resignation. “The action for going through a red light is usually you do not lose your license.”

McFarlane and Staley have maintained that Staley believed he had the clearance to seek out the anonymous employee’s identity, with McFarlane saying that Staley “only wanted to contact the individual to get him or her to stop writing letters, because he believed they were malicious,” according to the Times.

Maybe so. But even Staley acknowledges that his response to those letters was out of bounds; a response that CEOs—and HR leaders—at other organizations would be wise to hold up as an example of how not to handle a whistleblower complaint.