HSBC and the art of the public apology

HSBC boss Stuart Gulliver said sorry for the Swiss bank scandal yesterday, but what really makes a good apology?

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 03 Sep 2015

If anyone's on good terms with Elton John, they'd better tell him: sorry, it seems, is no longer the hardest word. Businesses, like politicians, have become quite adept at public contrition in recent years, as their PR departments have expanded. 

The latest example is HSBC's Stuart Gulliver, who offered his apologies for historic practices at the firm's Swiss Private Bank. Appearing before the Treasury Committee yesterday with chairman Douglas Flint, Gulliver reiterated in person what he'd said in a letter published in the media last week.

'I would like to put on public record an apology from both myself and Douglas for the unacceptable events that took place at our private bank in Switzerland in the mid 2000s,' Gulliver said. 'It clearly was unnacceptable. We very much regret this, and it has damaged HSBC's reputation.'

It's not exactly renting one's clothes and casting oneself out into the wilderness, but it's a decent start. But what does a perfect corporate apology look like? MT takes a look at some of the great apologies of recent years to find the essential ingredients. 

Assume reponsibility

People expect someone to take the blame when something goes wrong, but assigning blame on subordinates looks classless and childish. A 'the buck stops here' response is far more Presidential, but falls short of saying 'this was my fault'.  

Though it was doubtless sincere, Flint's apology doesn't quite hit the mark. He said he would 'take his share of responsibility' for the scandal, but added when pressed that 'the individuals most accountable for the data theft and the behaviour that was unacceptable to our standards, was [sic] the management in Switzerland'.

Gulliver does somewhat better. 'I wasn't running the private bank at the time,' he said, 'but I have spent 35 years working with HSBC, so there is a proximity issue'.

Say sorry

Refusing to actually say the word 'sorry' is a big mistake. Rather, it should be deployed judiciously in a way that shows genuine remorse. The prime example of someone who didn't quite get the balance right is BP's Tony Hayward, whose profuse apologies for the Deepwater Gulf oil spill in 2010 earned him scorn in the US.

'The first thing to say is I'm sorry', Hayward said on the local news. 'To those affected and your families, I'm deeply sorry,' he continued on a TV advert, repeated ad nauseam. 'I'm very, very, sorry that this accident occurred', he told American politicians, 'very sorry.' Ever noticed how a word repeated often enough starts to lose its meaning (sorry)?

So far, so good, but then Hayward went off script. 'We're sorry for the massive disruption it's caused their lives. There's no one who wants this over more than I do. I'd like my life back.'

BP's television ad, with a little extra at the end.

For some reason, that didn't go down well, which had a predictable response. 'I apologise,' he wrote on Facebook. 'Those words don’t represent how I feel about this tragedy, and certainly don’t represent the hearts of the people of BP.'

That was too little, too late for Hayward, and it wasn't long before he had to stand down.

Although there's something to be admired in a bit of honesty, sometimes it's better just to be quiet. Certainly, it's key to show that you're sorry for the pain it's caused other people, rather than yourself. It's the difference between 'I'm sorry this happened' and 'I'm sorry for doing this to you'.

Gulliver handled that side quite well. He admitted to MPs that the HSBC scandal 'resulted in damage to trust and confidence in HSBC and created further reputation damage to our firm and therefore hurt clients, customers, shareholders, our staff and people at large'. 

Reparation

What use is saying sorry if you do nothing to stop it happening again? A good apology comes with guarantees that things will change, or in HSBC's case, that things already have changed.

'The control environment because of the progressive implementation of a single set of standards is very much stronger than it was in the past,' Flint said, and the bank has consistently pointed out (without being defensive) that the actions they are sorry for took place only in the past.

Flint and Gulliver have certainly done a better job than Bob Diamond, who as the new boss of Barclays appeared before the same committee of MPs in 2011 over the bank's role in the financial crisis.

To be fair to him, Diamond started well, by ticking off the PR key words. 'We are sensitive, we are listening, and there is no lack of effort in recognising the importance of this issue and being responsible,' he said. 'We are very grateful to the central banks. We are thankful to everyone. We need to be responsible.'

Things went somewhat worse when the issue of change came up. Along with refusing to rule out collecting his bonus that year (he eventually did take a £6.5m bonus), he took issue with the bank-bashing tone of MPs' questions. 'There was a period of remorse and apology for banks and I think that period needs to be over,' he said, adding 'I resent the fact that you refer to [our banking practices] as black jack.' 

Does it work?

Not really. A good apology with the above ingredients doesn't make the problem go away. People still blame the businesses and leaders involved, at any rate until the scandal blows over. It's certainly considered better than the alternative of refusing to apologise at all, however.

On the other hand, sticking up for his position worked out alright for Diamond, at least until the Libor scandal came along the next year and forced him out for good.

In the end, perhaps the only way to end the blame game is to quit. There's always been a curious respect for the contrite leader who heroically falls on his or her sword. Unfortunately they seem to be few and far between these days. We couldn't think of any of the top of our heads - can you?

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