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The View From Under The Credit Crunch

A long term friend of mine, I'll call him MiddleBoss, runs a department in a financial concern. I'll call it BigBank. It's not your employer, I promise. In fact, it doesn't even exist. Let me make it crystal clear to any legal department that might be reading this, the following details are completely fictional and any resemblance to any company that may or may not exist is purely coincidental.

Anyway, my fictional friend, MiddleBoss, is now into his fifth "downsizing" exercise. The first - well, that was expected. After all, if you haven't been hit by the credit crunch, then you are in that tiny fraction of people who have the wisdom of Solomon or the luck of Croesus. MiddleBoss is sadly not in either of those categories. MiddleBoss's first downsize was, he tells me, not so bad. Oh, sure, it's not so great having to tell people you are "letting them go", but that first wave consisted of people who weren't going to be with his department for long anyway. There are always people who are not pulling their weight for various reasons. Maybe they used to, or maybe they never did, and they have survived one way or another. Losing these, if anything, felt like an efficiency exercise, MiddleBoss told me.

The second "downsize" was sort of expected. Not really expected, but not unexpected. The timing was a bit of a surprise, and if you were the hopeful type then you might have thought it wouldn't occur, after all the full extent of the credit crunch wasn't obvious at that point. MiddleBoss tells me that while it's a downright unpleasant task telling people they suddenly have no job, the unpleasantness is mitigated a bit by not really knowing the people all that well - after all with a layer or two of management between him and the people going, he didn't socialize that much with them. But the second wave included some people he had known for years. "Telling old friends that they are fired is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do".

MiddleBoss didn't get where he was by being stupid, so the third downsize was completely expected and was the easiest for him. He managed this, he says, by the simple expedient of anticipating when it would happen ("with budget setting time, the results of an efficiency review, and quarterly results, all hitting at about the same time, you'd have to be a moron not to anticipate this one"), and ensuring that he had already booked a long holiday for the period. "It's the only advantage of never taking your holiday entitlement - if you ever need it, you have as much as you want when you want it". Fortunately, when he requested the holiday, MiddleBoss's boss didn't notice that the holiday dates would be smack in the middle of the next downsize, "which was handy".

The fourth downsize was also dead easy, he tells me. "I didn't need to pick anyone, we just told the outsourcers to cut their bill by 10% without losing anyone that their ultimate BigBank manager didn't agree to lose". "It was a nightmare for them, I imagine, because only the new entry duffers were the ones we agreed to lose - which meant that their projections were completely messed up. They work by rolling on the duffers, training them up on the job, then rolling off the top notch ones, so keeping their average staff costs down while growing staff levels and expertise. But they had no choice, the alternative was that they'd lose our business completely - that's why we use multiple different outsourcers, so that we can ensure competition between them and keep our prices down".

MiddleBoss tells me he thought that would be the end of the downsizing unless things took a downward spiral in the markets. That last downsize happened as Bear Stearns collapsed, but it wasn't obvious that any more staff reductions would be needed. "But apparently the pressure on senior management is intense right now. I mean, frankly, these are actually the people who caused the whole crisis in the first place. Their primary job, and I mean the single most important part of their job, is to ensure that any large risks that the bank takes is fully evaluated and factored for. If we had a large position somewhere, it should have been reduced or hedged against. Even the cleaners know that. Oh, of course they claim it was one of those unforeseen things, and point out that the whole industry is in the same boat so 'proving' it was unforeseen. But come on, analysts were warning about this for ages. And now the same people who got us into this mess are running round like headless chickens cutting any costs they can. And they are about as long sighted as those headless chickens they resemble. We are already at the stage where our ability to run the current business is impaired, so this is now a downward spiral. If we hit problems, it's now gonna cost more than it would have, which reduces our profitability, which will probably force another downsize, and so on. Someone is going to start making good money from our headless chicken induced inability to run the business properly. But it won't be us".

So, in summary, 1) to make it clear once again, the above details are completely fictional; and 2) anyone who would like to employ an experienced middle manager who has successfully run a large I.T. project, please contact me and I will forward your details to a fictional email address.

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