At one bank I once worked, the head of equities took two weeks off to go on a silent retreat in a Buddhist monastery. This surprised us a little bit; although a fairly intelligent and sensitive chap, we’d never known he was particularly religious. But it’s hardly the strangest thing that someone might want to do with their annual leave, so we thought no more of it until he came back. Then we found out why he’d done it; he had been part of the planning for a major cost-cutting program, and the purpose of the retreat was to build up the spiritual peace and inner strength he needed to fire 50 of us.
That’s an unusual way of dealing with it, but the stress placed on managers during a big layoff program like the one recently announced by Deutsche Bank is real. It’s probably not reasonable to ask anyone to feel sympathy for the managers who are (usually) keeping their own jobs, but it is hard for them too. Absolutely nobody’s idea of a great day at work is to sit down for eight hours of ten-minute meetings in which you give a formerly valued colleague the worst career news possible.
And these aren’t even necessarily the worst kinds of meetings you can have. At least a big cost-cutting program is relatively impersonal. Although a manager at a firing meeting has to remain professional and speak as the voice of the company, it’s possible to have a bit of sympathy in the room and there’s nothing particularly personal about the decision. The very worst kinds of layoffs are the ones where it is personal – where there are only a couple of redundancies being made, or when there’s no immediate cost pressure on the business unit and people are being fired for reasons of performance or office politics.
Those are the most difficult meetings to handle because they are where grudges are formed that might last a lifetime. And just because someone has been let go from one house, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re out of the industry forever. Sometimes they show up on the client side, and when they do, the firm that fired them can usually forget about getting any business for a while. An even more important reason for trying to keep the exit meetings as pleasant as possible, though, is that people have friends.
At another brokerage, I once saw a salesman get let go in about the most humiliating way possible. There was a bank holiday and management was planning to fire him on Tuesday. Unfortunately, someone in human resources decided to get ahead of their workload and he found out about the decision when he was unable to give four clients a lift home from an entertainment evening because his car park pass no longer worked.
It didn’t go so well for the brokerage. The next time an account review came in, all the analysts and traders got something close to their usual rankings. And then, at the end of the letter, a short paragraph from the client’s CIO, expressing “disappointment” at the treatment of their account manager, and informing us that we would be getting zero commission income for the next quarter. Quite a kick in the stomach for the management team, particularly when it was followed by the realisation that there were another three such account reviews to come, one for each of the remaining passengers in that car.
Stories like these are cautionary tales for managers, warning them that you need to treat people as human beings, even when you’ve made the decision that they’re not working out at your bank. But that’s what makes it difficult if you’ve got a dozen exit letters to hand over. If you’re going to do things nicely and treat everyone with respect, it’s emotionally draining. So, in fact, spending a short period in silent contemplation might be the right thing to do.
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