A director of Barclaycard has left the company in disgrace after making a joke deemed offensive to Muslims.
Marc Howells, 42, who earned £200,000 a year, was addressing senior executives about the credit card company’s quarterly figures when he tried to make them laugh with the quip.
Mr Howells said: “The results were like Muslims – some were good, some were Shi’ite.”
Some outraged colleagues forced embarrassed laughs while others were stunned into silence, but Mr Howells seemed unaware of causing any offence.
His pun was later reported to senior management, however, and after some discussion he left the company last month before any disciplinary process could begin.
It is understood his departure was classified as “redundancy under compromise”, and involved a substantial payoff.
A source at Barclaycard who said: “No-one could quite believe their ears when he came out with his Shi’ite joke.
“He had a very responsible job in a multinational company. What on earth was he thinking of?
“There were a few embarrassed guffaws, but everyone except him knew he was for the high-jump the moment he said it.
“Once word got round and a complaint was made he was toast.”
Another insider added: “Howells jumped before he was pushed. Part of the deal was that the circumstances of his departure must never be discussed.
“But there was no chance of that once his Shi’ite joke started doing the rounds.”
A spokesman for Barclaycard said: “We don’t comment on individual cases and it is as simple as that.
“But everybody at Barclaycard gets diversity training, and that forms part of our employment contracts.
“We do not have a policy of discriminating against anyone who works for us or who wants to be a client, and Muslims are very much welcome to use our financial services.”
Mr Howells, who lives in North London in a rented £800,000 house, and was director of Barclaycard Europe, was last night unavailable for comment.
Mr Howells left his wife Sandra 18 months ago. She now lives with their three children in Cwmbran in Wales.
Mrs Howells, 44, said last night: “Marc hasn’t got a racist bone in his body.
“He just said the wrong thing at the wrong time in the wrong place.
“He’s worked all over the world, including Germany, Italy and South Africa., He wouldn’t have done that if he was racist.”
Mrs Howells added that her ex-husband was now living with an East European girlfriend, who also works for Barclaycard.
Shi’ites are one of the two main Muslim traditions, along with Sunnis. Extremism is not the exclusive preserve of small sections of either wing of the religion.
But feeble puns about the word Shi’ite have been made before – and got the jokers into trouble.
In October 1999, a white detective in the Metropolitan police was accused by an Asian woman colleague of rudely mispronouncing “Shi’ites” during a race relations presentation.
He was eventually cleared and an employment tribunal also backed him after he told the hearing he had simply mispronounced the word.
The tribunal panel also ruled that controversial Metropolitan Police chief Sir Ian Blair had “hung the men out to dry” because he wanted to make an example of them and prove his anti-racist credentials.
In the 1990s an American country and western song about conflict in the Middle East caused outrage with its chorus “We’re gonna kick the Shi’ite out of you”.