Business journalists have never had it so good in their hunt for the bankers they feel are responsible for the credit crunch. Like hungry lions picking off the weakest prey, they've chosen their targets well and remorselessly gone in for the kill. Few have survived their rapacious pursuit, and those at the top of the pile - the once-venerated CEOs - have been the ones pursued the hardest.
It could be so easy to do the same to John Varley, the soon to be stepping down CEO of Barclays Bank. The brickbats of journalistic opinion most recently hit him when it was announced that Bob Diamond, boss of Barclays Capital - the riskier investment banking side of the Barclays business, which was responsible for 90% of the Barclay's recent pre-tax profits - would be his successor. Shares fell 3% within hours. Today, as I sit in an office adorned by a Lowry oil painting, I'm here to talk about equality. You can almost taste the worry his PR advisers must feel. What sense can a £1 million a year CEO (a banker no less) possibly make of the concept of equality? Well, I'm happy to report, plenty actually.
Dressed in his trademark braces, and interviewed as the Equality Act was voted onto the statute book, Varley is president of the Employers Forum on Disability, a role he will continue to hold after leaving Barclays. Refreshingly, he doesn't confine himself to disability: he champions all forms of equality and is remarkably in touch with the subject, even quipping about how the only good press he and Diamond got around his succession story was to do with equality: "One of the nationals reported how choosing a 59 year-old to replace a 54 year-old struck a major blow against ageism in the workplace," he laughs. "Of all the media noise about my departure, I particularly enjoyed that - so much so I sent it straight to Diamond. I think he found it amusing."
According to the Office for National Statistics, there are approximately 10 million people in the UK with some form of disability - a high proportion of whom are in the workplace - but worryingly high numbers still find it hard to find employment. Charity Leonard Cheshire recently found non-disabled job applicants were twice as likely to receive a job interview as disabled applicants.
Varley's concern for the disabled arises from "interest and conviction" but significantly also from first-hand experience. "In my youth, I watched my aunt, who was severely disabled, struggle valiantly to find employment," he recalls. "I watched the burden of her disability at a time when society was not geared up to helping her. I felt anxiety on her behalf. Since then I've always wanted to make it easier for all employees to flourish. I've had the conviction that disability has no correlation with capability."
Varley says employers should "go out of their way" to help those with disabilities. He says he had his own Eureka! moment at Barclays some years ago when he noticed not many university students with a disability were applying for its summer internship programme. "We set up a dedicated route to encourage disabled people to apply and, to my real pleasure, the top performing person that year, across the entire applicant base, was a disabled person," says Varley. "It's a simple illustration," he adds, "but if we hadn't specifically asked for disabled people to apply, we probably wouldn't have seen such talented people."
Today, an impressive 20% of Barclays' graduate intake is classed as having some form of disability, and Varley campaigns to get as many corporates as he can to sign up for Employers Forum on Disability membership. For all their current failings, the banks, he says, are actually ahead of the curve here, and in 2007, for example, Lloyds TSB's disability programme was ranked the best out of the then 116 member organisations.
"Our own surveys at Barclays tell us who has a disability," he says, "and, as soon I became CEO, I created a listening group for some of them to come to and tell us what their issues are working here with a disability." Companies must listen to staff, he says, because "they are the experts here". He adds: "We absolutely want more people to know that Barclays is a congenial place to work whether you are able-bodied or disabled."
With many areas of equality seemingly just as bad as they have always been (particularly gender and pay equality), and in spite of statistics that say disabled jobseekers/workers still suffer discrimination (the Institute of Employment Studies recently found only one in five disabled workers is offered any form of adjustment at work), Varley believes disability equality has made demonstrable strides. "We tend to measure progress in months and years, but if I look at the past 20 years, I think there has been significant improvement." He adds: "We know a lot more about the subject of disability. What is absolutely clear is that disability is something that has registered on the collective leadership in our economy. Many more companies are what I call 'disability confident' - I've done training on this, and I've got my executive team to do it as well. Organisations don't need to be fearful of equality."
Of course, if organisations have become so equality-aware, some may say there should have been no need for the Equality Act in the first place. "Legislation wouldn't have been needed if all this stuff had been addressed," concedes Varley. So does he agree it had to be implemented because business was not quick enough to embrace equality? "It wasn't a last throw of the dice," he says, thinking about how to answer. "I think the Equality Act is more iterative, reflecting more progressive policy improvements. It wasn't born out of despair with businesses, but born out of progress."
In theory, the Equality Act updates the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, which already states companies cannot discriminate. But business has not reacted well to the 2010 legislation. Many employers believe they still have the right to ask candidates if they consider themselves to have a disability, because it is impractical and time-wasting for all concerned, they say, if a wheelchair-bound employee applies for a job that requires physical activity. Varley doesn't agree.
"I don't think employers have any right to ask if a jobseeker has a disability at either the application or the interview stage," he says resolutely. What, even if that applicant can't realistically undertake the requirements of that job? Varley is adamant: "The role of an employer is to get the best from people," he says. "They get this via good work from their people. An effective organisation simply holds this value true."
One of the many reasons businesses lobbied against the Equality Act was because, increasingly, more and more conditions are being defined as a 'disability'. From a relatively narrow definition 30 years ago, new 'disabilities' cover both physical and mental impairments and include practically anything that could affect an individual's ability to carry out a specific, work-related task. Since December 2005, anyone diagnosed with cancer has officially got a disability. Also added at the same time were those who have HIV. Campaigners are now trying to make 'depression' a disability covered by the law, and it may only be a matter of time - given the recent proposals to remove the default retirement age - before 'old age' will be described as a disability.
"Organisations should not become fixated by definitions," prescribes Varley. "Business has to be indifferent to definitions, but where individuals do need help, business must offer reasonable adjustments." On this point, he makes an important caveat. "It would be foolish to consider these changes as a cost," he says. "All academic research I've ever read tracks an increase in company performance to greater diversity strategies. Performance is not just a bit better, it is significantly better. In this sense, diversity or equality can have just as strong an impact as an economic decision, rather than it having to be an exercise in philanthropy."
As the avuncular Varley talks, it is quite clear equality, rather than equity markets, is something he is more than willing to take time out of his busy schedule to discuss. In a refreshing departure, he scorns the idea of companies having disability quotas (many Disability Forum members have them) - calling them "demeaning", and he feels reporting on the progress companies are making in equality should be including the annual report.
But there are a couple of nagging questions remaining. Is Barclays as equality-aware as it is only because it has an equality-aware boss? What happens if the CEO still needs some persuading? Does HR have the weight to push this agenda through? "Among my HR team, equality is part of the culture. It has to be," he says. "We have 150,000 employees. I don't have to issue edicts to make Barclays in tune with my thinking." That said, he admits: "HR knows I'm passionate about this topic, so they probably do elevate it a bit."
One admission he does make is that the HR director doesn't sit on his disability listening group, clearly reflecting that this is his innovation. But it gets him thinking. "Maybe I should invite HR to take part in it," he muses out loud. "They do tell me what I can do ... it's very relevant ..."
This is one banker that should not be vilified too much, and this last exchange reveals Varley still makes his own decisions about how he wants equality to sit in his company. Still, no doubt his HR team will be receiving their invitation to the next meeting soon, and the message he wants HR magazine readers to come away with is that he wants more companies to have similar meetings. "The whole thrust of equality is that we shouldn't discriminate at all - not by age, sex, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation," he says. A more broad-minded next generation, he believes, will make sure this is achieved. He may have to start with his kids first, though: "I don't feel old at 54," he says returning to the issue of age discrimination. "But the children say I am."