Antics which reveal the City at its most childish

The recession has hit most in the City hard, so what better way to boost your earnings than a spot of employment litigation? George Pitcher wouldn’t blame you

One swallow won’t make this summer, but the financial markets leapt upon news from the US last week that its economy was growing faster than expected, and the kind of fervour with which Incas used to greet the sun god, or England cricket fans would greet a batsman who reaches double figures.

The swallow is the US commerce department, which reported that gross domestic product (GDP) grew by 2.4 per cent in the second quarter, well ahead of the 1.5 per cent consensus predictions. A second swallow was reported in Europe, with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) finding some cautious optimism in the eurozone.

These figures could be analysed in a thorough and sensible way – indeed, they probably will be, as there’s little else to write about in the financial markets in August – but I want to take this last opportunity before my summer break to examine an altogether more frivolous economic indicator. This is the silly season, after all.

The indicator in question is the employment litigation industry in the City of London. Many of the cases for unfair or constructive dismissal, or for harassment, are doubtless not without great merit, but it is nevertheless a fact that they are far more prevalent in the bad times in the City than during bull markets.

This must partly be to do with City traders trying to replace bonuses with court settlements. And it will undoubtedly be the case that more claims will crop up for unfair dismissal during periods when more dismissals are happening.

It may also be that these City traders feel they have nothing to lose by bringing such actions, since one of the sadnesses of City life is that to complain, let alone to litigate, is career death. And, frankly, it may just be harder to make a case that you’ve been badly treated or abused when you’re making millions.

The latest case of fearful treatment in the City was reported last week alongside coverage of how the economy and markets in the US were recovering. It involved a senior director of broking house Cantor Fitzgerald, Steven Horkulak, who collected £1m for being bullied by his boss – who also used rude words, for which unspeakable trauma only the trousering of a seven-figure sum can compensate.

The boss in question was Lee Amaitis, head of Cantor’s international operations, who may have served his cause better had he confined his usage of F-words to “flipping”. Had he done so, he would have berated an interior designer, according to evidence in court, for putting up “flipping homosexual wallpaper”.

The removal of the usual F-word in this way focuses our attention on the meaning, rather than on the invective. What, for the love of all we hold dear in the City, is “homosexual wallpaper”?

I hesitate to go down too many avenues of inquiry – fun though they would be – but could the artistic Amaitis perhaps have been implying that there were motifs that were resonant of a sin that dare not speak its name, at least not in the heterosexual parlours of the City?

Or was he speaking figuratively, in that the background, ambient sound of his office environment – “wallpaper” as broadcasters call it – were predominantly homosexual? I dare say we’ll never know.

But I labour the point in order to illustrate the sheer inanity of the day-to-day working existence of some of those in the financial markets. This applies not only to Horkulak, who has £1m to help him come to terms with having been bullied, but also to Amaitis, with his dictatorial, unyielding and intemperate style (all words used by the trial judge) and the whole turbo-testosterone mob in the City, who believe that wealth-creation is in some way connected with playground behaviour.

There may be chancers and gold-diggers out there, but during the bear market of the past couple of years there has been a plethora of employment suits through the courts, involving the most puerile of behaviour at the heart of the greatest money-making machines in our economy.

Lots of these suits involve sex – and lots of these suits have been brought against City suits, as it were. One woman, for example, was largely successful in a recent case of constructive dismissal after it emerged that a male colleague had described her as a “tethered goat”, being used as “sexual bait” for male clients.

As it happens, I believe that there is much to be said for robust office banter, so long as it meets three criteria – it should be collegiate, inclusive and funny (even about wallpaper). If it fails on any one count, then it fails as banter.

My concern is that, as the economic sap rises in world markets, the rocking-horse brains in the City will return to their witless ways, largely ignored by those who are excluded from it and their lawyers, precisely and only because money-making becomes the exclusive priority of bull markets.

As financial markets recover, is it not possible that they could emerge with a little more maturity than they have exhibited previously? It must be possible for City offices to be occupied by people who can simultaneously be robust and decent.

If they can’t, we are forced to conclude that only the witless must be entitled to make a great deal of money.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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