There are multiple lessons to be learned from the recent tongue-in-cheek email sent to a fresh crop of Barclays summer interns by former analyst Justin Kwan. Think twice before hitting "send" is a big one. But the most important thing that the financial industry should take away from the incident is that we need to learn to laugh at ourselves.
Kwan's email listing "10 Power Commandments" for Barclays interns was an ill-conceived blend of wit and silliness, with tips like "Have a spare tie/scarf or two around. You never know when your associate will run out of napkins." But he clearly meant no harm. Yet Barclays appears to have taken the email at face value. A company spokesperson told The Washington Post: "This email communication was in no way authorized by Barclays. Barclays is fully committed to creating an environment where both our bankers and our business can thrive. We have implemented policies and training guidelines to enable employees to gain valuable experience while at the same time maintaining a healthy work-life balance."
Barclays' sober response highlights a major problem with corporate America: it takes itself too seriously. The tendency is to back into heavy-handed responses rather than dealing with the fallout from small but somewhat embarrassing incidents. It could have been possible for Barclays to publicly celebrate the youthful, if slightly misguided, antics of its analyst. The firm could have leveraged the email to humanize its brand. Just a chromosome or two of personality can go a long way.
Had I been in a position to offer Barclays advice, I would have suggested they welcome the summer interns once again with a humorous public response. As per his first suggestion, the bank might have announced that senior leadership would wear bow ties to work on the first day of the internship men and women alike.
This would have let the world know that Barclays' leadership has humor and personality as well as smarts. Had the bank laughed at itself a little, the email would have instantly been relegated to the annals of history. People might even feel a new sense of warmth toward the brand and the sporting way in which it handled this episode. Unfortunately, Barclays' handling of the episode has only served to breathe enough life into the story.
Kwan's name will be forgotten soon enough. Barclays, on the other hand, will be remembered not for its artful handling of an innocent gaffe, but as just another corporate behemoth that bobbed when it should've weaved.
Scott Sunshine is a partner at Water & Wall Group, a communications firm specializing in financial and professional services.