Wednesday, May 28, 2008

READY! AIM! ........... fire

Given the financial turmoil that Wall Street and most of it's players are in, massive layoffs amongst the heavy hitters of the financial world was to be expected. Everyone on the Street knew that they were coming and in their own way, perhaps even prepared for it. However, the layoffs in this cycle have been different than in those of crises past.

In 1987 after the stock market crash, in 1998 in the aftermath of the LTCM and Russian default crisis and in 2001 after the bursting of the dot com bubble and 9/11, there was a huge amount of bloodletting on the streets of Downtown New York. But it was done en masse, publicly and in one fell swoop. Merill Lynch laid off close to 20,000 employees in 2001, over 10,000 in the fourth quarter alone, undone by the double whammy of the bursting of the tech bubble and Sept. 11.

However, the layoffs in this cycle are markedly different. They are almost being done on the down low, the corporate equivalent of the 3 AM knock on the door. The New York Times in an article called them 'stealth layoffs' and that 'the first clue that someone is gone can be e-mail messages that are returned to senders from a former colleague’s inactivated corporate address.' People who have worked at their companies for a decade or more have been, and are being, shown the door. And in the face of all the 'different opportunities being pursued' and 'different directions being gone in' and the amount of 'time being spent with the family' all around us, almost no public acknowledgement is been made of the people leaving.

Although Wall Street has announced the elimination of about 65,000 jobs in 2008, this time the layoffs have been spread out over weeks and months. As a result of this death by a thousand cuts system of layoffs there is an atmosphere of 'fear, paranoia and anger' amongst employees as they wonder who will be next or when the bells will toll for them. The constant and ever present of losing their jobs, of not knowing in the morning if they will be unemployed by the evening and most of all, not knowing when it will stop is taking its own heavy toll. One banker interviewed by the New York Times pretty much hit the nail on the head when he said that before the layoffs there was a sense of loyalty with the bank, a sense of pride, "that they got my back." But he said that that idea of loyalty had gone from most banks.

Most Wall Street financial institutions have extensive orientation programs for new employees and one of the things stressed is how the institution takes care of its own, even talking about its 'alumni networks' and the excellent business relations it has with its former employees. When new people join the firm, they introduced with great pomp and pride at the weekly meetings but when they leave (voluntarily or otherwise), absolutely no mention is made of it. It's as if the person never even existed.

Call me naive but the realization that an organization could be so mercenary in kicking to the curb employees it felt that it didn't need anymore was kind of shocking. And how is it that most of the financial institutions on Wall Street are behaving the same way in how they deal with layoffs? Like some sort of fashion fad, everyone seems to have gotten the same idea at the same time. I wonder how that works - do CEOs of major investment banks get together and develop a common firing strategy for the year? Bizarre.

And sad.

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