Listen to this article
Twice over the past few months, I walked over to London’s Southwark Crown Court and spent a couple of hours observing the trial of five former Barclays bankers accused of conspiring to manipulate the US dollar Libor rate.
As so often in court, I was struck by the contrast between the high stakes for the accused, who potentially faced long prison terms, and the humdrum pace of the proceedings.
As prosecution and defence counsel took witnesses through incomprehensibly complex financial shenanigans from a decade ago, the accused sat in the glass dock, half listening while they scrolled through emails on their tablets.
In their tieless shirtsleeves, they looked as unremarkable as any commuter slumped across the aisle on the train home, but one, Jonathan Mathew, particularly interested me.
He told the court that he had no idea he was behaving dishonestly and only did what Peter Johnson, his manager, told him to do. Mr Mathew said he dealt mainly with Canadian dollar Libor matters and other currencies and only set US dollar rates when Mr Johnson was out of the office or on holiday.
Early on, when another banker asked him to set a particular US dollar rate, he ignored the email, which earned him a rebuke from Mr Johnson when he returned. In future, Mr Johnson told him, he should take a “firm-first approach” and “help these guys out”.
He also told the court that Mr Johnson used to hit him on the back of the head with a miniature baseball bat. This was to humiliate, not hurt him. Mr Johnson also made him stand on a chair on the trading floor when he could not name the capital of the Philippines.
He called him a “deaf git” (Mr Mathew has hearing difficulties) and once sent him an email headed “brick dain” because the bank’s compliance department would have picked up an email headed “dick brain”.
I felt sorry for Mr Mathew when I read his evidence and sorry when, along with two others, he was found guilty last week. (The jury failed to reach agreement on the other two.)
The jury decided that Mr Mathew had been dishonest. They heard 11 weeks of evidence, as against my couple of hours, so they were in a better position to decide. He, along with the other two convicted, and Mr Johnson, who pleaded guilty, will be sentenced this week.
What should Mr Mathew have done when confronted with his bullying and dishonest boss? What should anyone do when asked to perform a possibly shady act by a superior?
It is easy to think of all sorts of remedies from the outside, but in truth the options are very few.
You could confront your manager and say, “Are you sure this is the right thing to do?” This might give a few bosses pause. It does not seem likely that Mr Johnson was one of those.
You could go to your boss’s boss but few will contemplate undermining another manager’s authority.
You could call the ethics hotline. This is clearly the right thing to do, but it will almost certainly spell the end of your career and you and your family’s happiness.
I have interviewed several whistleblowers over the years. Most have been driven half-crazy by the persecution, law suits and vituperation that followed their act of public service.
That leaves only one real option: to resign and try to find another job, preferably in a field where these practices don’t take place.
This was not an attractive avenue for Mr Mathew, who had poor educational qualifications and had got a job with Barclays as a teenager only because he had a family connection there.
But, if you are in a similar position, it is almost certainly the best option for you. Once you walk away, you can hope that your boss will receive his comeuppance. Probably, unlike Mr Johnson, he won’t. People who bully their subordinates are usually highly skilled at impressing their superiors and the great and good elsewhere. But at least you won’t be involved.
If you do opt to stay and do what your boss tells you to do, think about Mr Mathew as the verdict came in. The Financial Times reported that he sat in the dock with his head in his hands while his tearful wife and parents looked on from the spectators’ gallery.
I am not surprised. There have been many villains in the financial crises of the past few years. Mr Mathew does not strike me as the worst.
Get alerts on Libor scandal when a new story is published