‘Stealth’ Layoffs and Employee Morale

Stealth layoffs on Wall Street and employee morale

‘For Wall Street Workers, Ax Falls Quietly’

Last month, the New York Times reported about ‘stealth’ layoffs in the financial services industry. The story refers to a trend of Wall Street firms downsizing their workforces by laying people off without formal announcements. It appears that, at these firms, managements rarely discuss layoffs in meetings or formal communications to preclude negative publicity. As a result, employees cannot easily identify what divisions are targeted for layoffs or whether they’ll stay or go.

Here are excerpts from the “For Wall Street Workers, Ax Falls Quietly” story.

  • Some bosses hardly say a word after people are fired. At Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, for example, 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.
  • Some Lehman Brothers investment bankers found out their jobs were in peril when they saw cardboard boxes and dumpster bins in the hallways in March.
  • And when Bank of America dismissed some bankers recently, it told them that their annual bonuses had been almost wiped out and that their personal belongings would arrive in the mail.
  • “Nobody knows who is coming in; nobody knows who is going out,” said JoAnne Kennedy, who was laid off by JPMorgan Chase this year. “They want to keep it all as quiet as possible.” In January, when Ms. Kennedy was temporarily out of the office at JPMorgan because of surgery, her boss called to say her job had been eliminated. She did not return to her office and ended up asking the bank to send her the photos of her son that she kept on her desk. [Note: Reorganized]

Impending Layoffs Initiate Distraction and Poor Employee Morale

Portait of Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, with the caption 'Big Ben, We're Totally Screwed' After about five years of terrific across-the-industry performance and sky-high compensations, the financial services sector is presently reeling in a downturn—triggered by the sub-prime crisis, credit crunch and stunted returns in capital markets. Under present circumstances, Wall Street firms can justify downsizing their workforce. Still, the trend of ‘stealth’ layoffs amounts to unfair treatment of employees. Ironically, it is likely that these very companies publicly pride themselves on the talent of their workforce and boast “our people are our most important assets” in annual reports.

The practice of ‘stealth’ layoffs establishes an environment of mistrust and apprehension. Employees cannot focus on their work, speculate on ‘who is next,’ and prepare themselves for a potential dismissal. Employees may even hesitate to take vacations for fear of returning to a dismissal. The end result is poor morale and possible defections of talented people to competing firms.

[Image above: A portrait of Ben Bernanke, Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, with the caption ‘Big Ben, We’re Totally Screwed’ in reference to the sub-prime crisis. I photographed this portrait across from the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in November ’07. The artist had placed this portrait on auction at eBay.]

Layoffs are Never Easy

Dismissals, Layoffs, Downsizing Often, business decisions entail some pain. Layoffs are never easy—for executives of a large organization facing the need to downsize by thousands or for a manager trying to dismiss one of his/her employees. Habitually, managers dread the prospect of facing employees being dismissed. Formal top-to-bottom communication and candid conversations with affected employees are obligations of the management. Employees being dismissed rightfully deserve to hear a respectful and honest assessment of the reasons for layoffs. They merit an offer for support through the transition and in pursuing employment elsewhere. This is the essence of true corporate character.

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