· Features

Inappropriate behaviour - when the past is not left in the past

The news that Stephen Jones, head of UK Finance, has quit over "thoroughly unpleasant" personal comments he made in 2008 about financier Amanda Staveley, is a stark reminder to executives that their past behaviour may one day come back to haunt them.

To employers, it also highlights the new norms that apply to sexist remarks in the workplace.

Jones, who headed up the banking industry’s lobby group, made the comments in question while he was a senior banker at Barclay during the financial crisis.

He resigned when it became clear that the comments may be revealed on his appearance as a witness in court next month in a £1.5 billion court case between Barclays and Staveley’s company PCP Capital Partners.

In a statement, Jones said that he has apologised to Staveley for the comments made and feels it is right for him to step down from his role at UK Finance.

The chairman of UK Finance, Ben Wigley, stated that Jones has “rightly acknowledged” that the comments he made in 2008 “were inappropriate and do not meet the standards expected of leaders in our industry.”

Jones’s resignation – and the comments made by Wigley – are a clear indication that the standards of acceptable behaviour in the City have changed and that actions which would once have been overlooked or even forgotten may still have consequences today.

This is particularly the case in respect of sexist or derogatory comments or behaviour against women by male senior executives.

It echoes what we have seen with the #MeToo movement, which has led to the calling to account of various powerful men regarding historic instances of inappropriate behaviour against women.

If employers had any doubt, the Stephen Jones example is further evidence there is now “zero tolerance” against such behaviour.

Organisations are increasingly and quite rightly sensitive to being associated with those who in the past have engaged in what would be deemed unacceptable behaviour by today’s standards.

Modern lens

Past behaviour, it seems, is being judged against the standards of today which could have significant ramifications for careers and employer brands.

In the City, the Financial Conduct Authority is also taking a strong stance on such matters and announced late last year that City firms must do more to tackle sexual harassment in their organisations.

Jonathan Davidson, a member of the FCA’s executive committee, went as far as to say that senior managers who either commit or allow such behaviour to go unchallenged are not “fit and proper” to hold their jobs.

Employers are expected to reflect this new norm in their processes and procedures, particularly regarding hiring and promotions and the training they provide to staff to ensure that people at the top behave and operate accordingly.

It is unclear what Stephen Jones will do next, but one wonders whether, given the circumstances, the FCA would deem him “fit and proper” to carry out another senior management position in the City.

The importance of this is that attitudes even in the City are changing and changing for the better. All senior executives should take this case as a warning sign and be mindful of their conduct.

Corinne Aldridge is head of employment at law firm Kingsley Napley

Further reading:

The post #MeToo workplace: What’s really changed?

Finding gender equality in the blur between home and work

UK falls in ranking for gender equality

EHRC urges employers to crack down on harassment post #MeToo